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Teresa Heinz Kerry: The Lioness

The Globe and Mail, Oct. 2

Pueblo, Colo. — Teresa Heinz Kerry pushed an unruly curl off her face and settled it into her thick, chestnut mane. She prowled the stage like the lioness she claims to be -- purring to the attentive crowd, and flashing her eyes and famous temper at a hostile questioner.

For 90 minutes, the woman who would be first lady of the United States of America delivered a meandering talk that was part TV confessional, part wonkish lecture and part biting attack on President George W. Bush and his Republican administration.

Outspoken and often lacking in tact, Mrs. Heinz Kerry has become a target in the clash of civilizations waged between liberals and conservatives in America. While those on the left see her as a standard-bearer for the modern, successful woman, right-wing radio hosts and bloggers condemn her as a weird, out-of-touch radical liberal.

Even some progressives have attacked her for letting down their side -- feminist writer Naomi Wolf accused her of "emasculating" her husband, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, by keeping the name of her first husband, a Republican senator who died in a plane crash 13 years ago.

"Add to that fact that her first husband was (as she is herself now) vastly more wealthy than her second husband," Ms. Wolf wrote in New York magazine. "Throw into all of this her penchant for wearing black, a colour that no woman wears in the heartland, and you have a recipe for just what Kerry is struggling with now: charges of elitism, unstable family relationships and an unmanned candidate."

Scared off by such sentiments, the Kerry campaign has played down her role. She doesn't appear in campaign ads, as does the widely popular Laura Bush, who is frequently pictured behind her husband's shoulder or next to him, looking up at him adoringly.

(Mrs. Heinz Kerry will appear with her husband next week on Dr. Phil, the daytime talk show, where the Bushes appeared in an hour-long interview this week.)

However, she is still campaigning vigorously -- New Mexico and Colorado last week; Minnesota and Florida this week. And she can move a sympathetic crowd in her persona as a wise, older woman who has been moved to action by the callousness of the Bush administration.

On the stage of the 4-H Pavilion of the Colorado State Fair Grounds last Friday, Mrs. Heinz Kerry softly confided in the 350 strangers sitting on folding chairs before her. Before her husband embarked on his quest to be president, she had thought she would not be able to take the pace and ugliness of the modern political campaign, she told them.

But then, she thought about America's children, and the deepening social and economic problems she was encountering as head of the Heinz charitable foundation, she said. The mother lion in her decided she could not shrink from the battle.

"I didn't think I had the energy or the ability to withstand it," she said, clutching the microphone to her chest.

"On the other hand, I knew that all the issues that I worked on in my own life are in serious jeopardy. . . . And I felt that I had to go down fighting to protect my kids and my grandchildren and other people's too. And I will."

To the cheers of the partisan crowd, the 65-year-old grandmother added that she has gained wisdom and focus with age so she is not deterred by "the lies and the stupidity and the nonsense."

Her image of an embattled lioness is an apt one. Mainstream voters -- who have caught only glimpses of her -- aren't sure what to make of the foreign-born heiress who told a tendentious reporter to "shove it," and suggested children in the hurricane-battered Caribbean could "go naked" while relief efforts concentrate on food, water and electricity.

The remark had right-wing radio hosts and bloggers comparing her to Marie Antoinette saying "let them eat cake."

Even in a poll held before that incident -- conducted last month in 19 battleground states by Washington-area firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates -- Mrs. Heinz Kerry won a favourable rating from only 40 per cent of respondents, while 30 per cent saw her unfavourably.

Mrs. Bush, in stark contrast, had a favourable rating of 62 per cent and a mere 14 per cent unfavourable.

She was popular even among Democratic supporters, while 60 per cent of Republican voters had a negative opinion of Mrs. Heinz Kerry.

With her dark beauty, languid manner and lilting accent, Mrs. Heinz Kerry appears more like an aging European screen star than an American political wife on the hustings. She is clearly not a typical politician's spouse, despite being married to a politician for much of her adult life.

Christened Marie Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira, she grew up in colonial Mozambique, the favoured daughter of a Portuguese doctor who supported African independence. She was schooled at top universities in South Africa and Switzerland.

In 1966, she married H. John Heinz III, whom she met on a tennis court in Switzerland and who was heir to one of the largest fortunes in the United States, the Heinz ketchup millions.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, he served as a congressman and then a senator from Pennsylvania and she raised their three boys. After his death in an airplane crash in 1991, she took over the family's charit-able foundation, gaining widespread recognition for her diligent, inspired work.

She married Mr. Kerry, who was divorced, in 1995. But she remained a Republican until 2002, when, she says, she became disgusted with the party's vicious attacks against war veterans such as former Georgia senator Max Cleland.

Now, she is auditioning for one of the leading roles in American political theatre. Like British royalty, the first lady is expected to be an exemplar of style and mores, but also a modern woman of substance who must champion her own causes.

Mrs. Heinz Kerry has insisted that, as first lady, she would continue her work as head of the Heinz Endowments. Supporters compare her to Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt, two controversial first ladies who pursued their own social and political agendas while in the White House and attracted the venom of conservatives.

Early in the 2004 campaign, Mrs. Heinz Kerry suggested that she was too old and had too much life experience to be restrained by political handlers. At the Democratic convention in Boston in July, she told delegates that she "profoundly cherished" her right to have her own voice.

But political strategists have good reasons for packaging candidates and their spouses: It works. Selling a politician has been likened to marketing soap, and unscripted comments can cause trouble. While few Americans vote based on their view of the first lady, she can reinforce or detract from the image of the candidate that the campaign is trying to convey.

Certainly, Mrs. Heinz Kerry has endured blistering criticism from conservative pundits and Internet gossips. Her Latin earthiness is criticized as "imperious sexuality," and her sharp tongue called tactless and opinionated.

Her wealth, which is estimated at $750-million (U.S.), is invoked to suggest that she is out of touch with women who struggle to raise a family and hold down a job.

Even among Democrats, critics suggest that Mrs. Heinz Kerry is so keen to fight her own battles that she has lost sight of the greater project, one that seems increasingly out of reach: to defeat George Bush and elect her husband president of the United States.

But supporters say she is just being genuine, and that's what Americans deserve from politicians and their spouses.

After her speech in Pueblo, Mrs. Heinz Kerry defended herself against those who say she is too outspoken.

"It's not opinionated, it's judgment based on knowledge," she told reporters. "No man who does my work and runs what I run would be called opinionated -- he'd be called smart or well-informed. That's all I ask for women."

Betty Houchin Winfield, a University of Missouri professor who specializes in political communication and has written on first ladies, suggests that Mrs. Heinz Kerry is a formidable woman who makes some people -- men, in particular, but not only men -- nervous.

"What is irritating for some people is that she is comfortable about who she is," Ms. Houchin Winfield says.

"Let's face it, she is comfortable about her age, about how she looks, about her background and she oozes this Old World, classy female who ages very well, who is wise and who doesn't like putting up with a lot of guff."

At the Pueblo event, women in the audience said Mrs. Heinz Kerry's candour -- far from being a liability -- is her strongest asset.

Jenny Dingman, a Pueblo resident who runs a support group for victims of medical errors, was a lifelong Republican until she heard Mrs. Heinz Kerry speak about her views on abortion.

Mrs. Heinz Kerry has talked about how she faced the possibility of an abortion during a troubled pregnancy but ended up losing the baby naturally. A devout Catholic who wears a small gold crucifix, she says she personally opposes abortion but supports choice as well as education to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Ms. Dingman said she was impressed by her honesty and her complicated response to a complicated issue. "Laura Bush is a beautiful lady and is very gracious, but she is not as strong," she said. "I think in order to be in a leadership position, you need that. The greatest first ladies we ever had were very strong women."

Certainly, far from out-of-touch, Mrs. Heinz Kerry was both engaging and provocative in Pueblo.

She told her listeners that they should reject politicians who offer solutions in "short little sentences that mean nothing or can mean everything." Instead, she undertook to "connect the dots" among problems involving the economy, health care and education. She spoke for an hour without notes before taking questions.

While she frequently referred to Mr. Kerry's policies, the views expressed were clearly her own, backed up by a ream of statistics and anecdotes involving her sister-in-law, her son's girlfriend and her niece.

Like her husband, she can be overly enamoured of buzzwords and acronyms, a byproduct of her work with social policy advocates. But even when she strayed onto difficult terrain in Pueblo -- bringing up the dangers of estrogenic impacts on a question about the links between health and environment -- her audience stayed attentive.

Heads in the crowd nodded as she described the increasing pressures on middle-class families and retirees from rising health-care costs, higher university tuitions and a tougher job market.

"All of a sudden, I see this population -- and I don't like to call them middle-class or any class, I call them people who managed their lives and were lucky to do so -- all of sudden, I see them not being able to manage," she said. "And these people are startled because they've never not been managing and they're not sure know how to slide by or somehow survive."

She also displayed her feisty side, to the delight of the partisan crowd, taking on a young man who questioned why her husband voted both for and against funding for the war in Iraq.

She explained that Mr. Kerry supported the initial funding bill but balked when the administration demanded an additional $20-billion without detailing how it would be spent.

Unfazed, the questioner began to doubt Mr. Kerry's ability to lead a country at war. Mrs. Heinz Kerry cut him off: "If you want to say he flip-flopped, say so," she snapped. "Don't pretend."

As the crowd booed the flustered man out of the room, Mrs. Heinz Kerry started chanting: "Six more week, six more weeks."

It's now down to less than five weeks before Americans choose between her husband's vision of their country and a more conservative one. Mrs. Heinz Kerry will campaign down to the wire, promising to win or to "go down fighting."

Shawn McCarthy is a member of The Globe and Mail's New York bureau.

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