Brief Lives October 2004

The X Factor

Americans probably care less about Teresa Heinz Kerry's outspokenness than about her exoticism. The question is what they think of it
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Teresa Heinz Kerry is standing in the middle of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant, clutching a tiny container of chili and a bright-yellow cup of soda. She is wearing a smart brown pantsuit and a pale-pink blouse with its collar spread wide. Today is John and Elizabeth Edwards's twenty-seventh wedding anniversary, and the entire Kerry-Edwards campaign has halted its cross-country bus tour in sleepy Newburgh, New York, to let the lovebirds enjoy their traditional celebratory burgers and fries. Teresa, clearly new to Wendy's, eases her way through the crowd to join the Edwardses. She smiles gamely at her curious fellow diners. She reaches down to ruffle the dark hair of a small boy perched in a booster chair. She resembles nothing so much as a debutante at a tractor pull.

For months now the entire political world has been waiting (Republicans eagerly, Democrats anxiously) for the unscripted, uncontrollable wife of John Kerry to say or do something so outrageous that it alters the dynamics of the presidential race. Fueling expectations, every few weeks Teresa (as much of America has come to know her) lets fly another zinger—such as when she questioned the patriotism of the current President and Vice President, or when, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, she was caught on camera telling an impertinent reporter to "shove it." In a Democratic campaign being run with the utmost caution, Teresa has been publicly deemed an "X factor" and a "loose cannon."

Barring some truly over-the-top outburst, however, Teresa's mouthiness will probably matter less than how her offbeat persona plays into voters' views about her husband. Like running mates, political spouses have meaning and impact largely in the way they reflect on the candidates themselves. Opinions vary as to how Teresa may confirm or confound the conventional wisdom about her husband. Democrats hope her spunk will combat Kerry's image as an aloof, dull-as-mud equivocator. (Surely it takes a strong, self-assured man to keep up with a spitfire like "T," as friends call her.) Republicans hope that her eye-popping wealth will help them tar Kerry as an out-of-touch elitist, and that her outspokenness will raise the question of who wears the pants in their household. (What kind of man puts up with that sort of sass anyway?) There's little question, however, that the irrepressible Teresa (pronounced Tuh-ray-za, much to the delight of Republicans) serves to highlight how very not average the Kerry family is. As one Democratic strategist put it, "My thought has always been that to the extent Kerry seems slightly odd and different from the rest of us, Teresa accentuates that."

One of the more surprising things about Teresa is how quietly she speaks. Despite her bomb-throwing reputation, her voice is low, throaty, and heavily accented in a sexy, Sophia Loren kind of way. It stays soft and measured even when she's discussing what it's like to be labeled "outspoken," "opinionated," "tough," and even "crazy" by the chattering classes.

"That's one thing about expectations for women on the campaign trail," Teresa explains to me. "If I were at a conference with colleagues and said the same things, they would not call me outspoken. They would say I was uninformed, well-informed, dumb—or whatever was appropriate. It would be contextual. But out there, the expectation is that a woman has to be adoring, silent, smiling. She is not to be measured according to who she is and what she does and what she knows." The political world has such a narrow conception of what's acceptable from the wives, she purrs.

Controversial image notwithstanding, Teresa has been a rigorous campaigner on her husband's behalf, crisscrossing the country for speeches, fundraisers, and rallies. It's a big concession from a woman accustomed to a level of privacy and privilege incompatible with campaign life—and one who has long opposed her husband's running for President. "The main reason Kerry did not run last time was that she was opposed to it," a Democrat close to the campaign told me. "She came around to it this time, and to her everlasting credit, once he got in she became an enthusiastic partner."

Though often compared to Hillary Clinton, Teresa Heinz Kerry has no political aspirations of her own and little interest in the details of her husband's race. "She's not involved in the nitty-gritty of the campaign," a former campaign staffer says. "My experience is more that she has really strong opinions on policy." This latter fact, of course, thrills Republicans, who portray Teresa as another aspiring co-President. Undeterred, she continues to share her policy views, along with her total disdain for the Bush Administration's handling of everything from global warming to stem-cell research. ("Sinful," "un-American," and "ignorant" are some of the more colorful labels she has applied to the actions of the Administration.)

On the campaign trail Teresa is generally well received by her admittedly partisan audiences. (Her frequent call for women's voices to be heard "at last and in full" is a particular favorite with the gals.) Her friends claim that the very things that make her so controversial among Beltway types—her openness, her sauciness, her international perspective—work to her advantage in talking to ordinary Americans. "She knows how to swish her hips and just take off to the music," Diana Walker, a photojournalist and a close friend of Teresa's for more than three decades, told me. Teresa's friends do acknowledge that many voters initially assume they can't relate to someone so privileged. But Allyn Stewart, a movie producer and a close friend who (like Walker) often keeps Teresa company on the campaign trail, told me that once you see how comfortable she is with people from all walks of life, "you realize what a genuine, down-to-earth person she is."

Maybe. But there remains a distinct air of otherness about Teresa—one that is especially noticeable when she's sharing the stage with the girl-next-doorish Elizabeth Edwards. Part of it is that Teresa's style is a bit too glamorous: the movie-star sunglasses, the Chanel shoes, the habit of draping her suit jacket over her shoulders like a cape. Part of it is what Walker calls her "Latin charm," which encompasses not just the accented and strangely phrased English but also a cosmopolitan world-weariness that seems not quite American. "She is so proud of her worldliness that she's made sure not to assimilate too much," a campaign intimate says. And part of it is Teresa's refusal (or inability) to observe the generally accepted standards and practices of campaign life. If her husband is delivering a speech Teresa has heard a thousand times, she does not pretend to be fascinated. If she grows tired during an event, she will lounge languidly against a nearby barricade, chin in hand. If the glare of TV lights hurts her eyes at a late-night event, she will don dark glasses. This is not to say that she makes no effort at public events. She claps. She waves. She blows kisses to the crowd and bebops to corny campaign tunes (even though she must by now want to kill herself every time she hears "Johnny Be Good"). But her efforts to play the committed political spouse are often reminiscent of watching your mom try to relate to the kids at your fifth-grade slumber party: sweet, but painfully unconvincing.

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Michelle Cottle

Michelle Cottle is a senior writer for National Journal.

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