Where would we be without Teresa Heinz? The fantastically rich, wildly candid wife of Sen. John Kerry is the only compelling figure so far in a presidential race that otherwise threatens to be devoid of color, drama, and really chewable stories.
But "compelling" doesn't begin to capture the unmuzzled abandon, the compulsive, almost imperial determination to say and do as she pleases—in short, the bottomless newsiness that this woman brings to virtually every encounter she has with the big-time political media.
Mrs. Heinz Kerry—in a rare concession to the practical realities of politics, she recently added his name to hers—isn't just overshadowing her husband, she's slowly but surely becoming the story of this campaign, in a way no modern first lady wanna-be, not even Hillary herself, has ever done this early in the game. Heinz (which I'll call her here, to distinguish her from her husband) was stirring the pot before it was even on the stove, long before her husband announced his presidential candidacy, and she shows no signs of stopping.
It all began about a year ago, when a joint profile of the Kerrys appeared one Sunday on the front of The Washington Post's Style section. The piece, by Mark Leibovich, opened with an unforgettable scene in which the senator and his wife are having a spat in their Georgetown living room, right in front of the reporter. The spat is about whether Teresa Heinz needs to mend fences with Sen. Rick Santorum, who now occupies the seat of her late husband, John Heinz, and at some point so offended her (the reasons are not given) that she stopped speaking to him. The scene closes with this piquant moment of connubial strife:
"No, I don't want to get together with him, John," she snaps. "I don't have to do certain things."
"OK? I don't have to be that politic."
As the rest of the piece made clear, this could actually be Heinz's motto. I don't have to be that politic. Several paragraphs later, Kerry is claiming he's no longer haunted by bad dreams about his Vietnam War experiences: "I don't think I've had a nightmare in a long time," he tells the reporter. Your standard-issue political spouse would nod empathetically and let that statement lie.
"But then," writes Leibovich, "Heinz begins to mimic Kerry having a Vietnam nightmare. 'Down! Down, down!' she yells, patting her hands down on her auburn hair. 'I haven't gotten slapped yet,' she says. 'But there were times when I thought I might get throttled.' "
When Kerry tries to avoid a question about whether he's been in therapy, Heinz reveals that he has. She also has a penchant for dropping little bombs on herself, noting at one point that her eldest son started "hating her" a few years earlier, when he had his own child. And the piece is packed with suggestions that Heinz has closer ties to her first husband, spiritually at least, than to her current one. For instance, Leibovich quotes her: " 'I love my husband'—she means John Heinz—'I am in love with my husband, and I have three kids.' "
The piece electrified the politico-media class and instantly became legend. Even today, people still refer to it and argue its meanings, to the point where it's becoming one of the sacred texts of modern political journalism.
After it appeared, Teresa Heinz went off the radar screen for a while. But lately she's back, and in top form. The current issue of Elle magazine has a piece headlined "Taming Teresa," in which writer Lisa DePaulo spends a lot of time trying to show the upside of Teresa Heinz. She is, after all, passionate about the environment and other causes that she supports as head of the billion-dollar Heinz Foundation. And there's a lot to be said for a political wife who's not afraid to be herself. She "would undoubtedly do great things if installed in the East Wing," DePaulo writes, rather speculatively, "because she'd simply have to."
But then, in the final 10 paragraphs of this very long piece, Elle finally dishes up the hot stuff it's been withholding, all the self-inflicted zingers that savvy Teresa-watchers have come to expect. "Everybody has a prenup," she says, defending her prenuptial agreement with Kerry, while leaving the distinct impression that she thinks "everybody" is a gazillionaire. She's had Botox treatments and in fact needs another right now. A nose job may be in the offing. And so on.
The New York Times followed up with a front-page piece that cited both The Post and Elle—the Teresa coverage is a growing daisy chain of collectible moments—and posed the central question: "Is she refreshingly candid or hopelessly impolitic?"
To political connoisseurs, people who love a vivid, unruly campaign, the answer doesn't matter. She's both, and that's precisely why she makes news. They see the latest dispatch from Teresa Central and thank heaven she exists. Vanity Fair has a piece in the works on both Kerry and Heinz. I think we can guess who will dominate.
What the rest of the country will think of Heinz remains to be seen. "The more outside Washington, outside sort of the Gang of 500, that you go, the more people actually liked her," Leibovich told me this week. "There definitely seemed to be a split between the mainstream, well-educated population's response to her and the Washington insiders' response to her."
But then, the broad public is only just getting to know Teresa Heinz. They'd better fasten their seat belts. She's going to be with us for at least nine more months, and it could be a very bumpy ride.