Byline: Melinda Henneberger, Graphic by Meredith Sadin
Just before democratic presidential contender John Kerry takes the stage at a recent fund-raiser in New York, his wife folds her arms around him and, as they canoodle for just a second, whispers some quick instructions about what he should do with his hands while addressing the crowd. Asked about the coaching later, she doesn't hesitate to repeat what she told him: "I was reminding him that there are some movements he makes that are very inviting and some that are--forceful." Oh? "Inviting: think the Italians," she says, giggling--warm, alive, fully animated. "And not: well, Hitler. That would be the extreme," she adds, and laughs again, presumably at herself for breaking one of the simpler rules for political wives: never mention your husband and the fuhrer in the same sentence.
There are a lot of laughs on the road with Teresa Heinz Kerry, actually. Though maybe not so many back at Kerry HQ, where despite protestations to the contrary not everyone thinks an aspiring First Lady ought to be quite so... spontaneous. Kerry's no-nonsense campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, has confided to friends that she's slightly unnerved by his wife's candor. And when Cahill tells me, "She's great with women and children in small groups," it's hard not to hear that as: we'd lock her in a closet if we could.
Eight weeks after he effectively sewed up the nomination, Kerry remains undefined for many Americans--and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, just your basic polyglot philanthropist, is even more of a mystery. Kerry's wife was a registered Republican until last year, muses publicly that she's not reflexively pro-choice and, perhaps most shockingly, when asked a question, generally answers it. Even the wife of the guy running for city council knows to say it's clear her man will win. But Teresa, when asked for her read on how things are going in her husband's race, says: "I can't tell. The only people I see now are Democrats."
On the matter of what Kerry needs to do to win in this closely divided country, she is equally straightforward. "Be himself, be free or be loose, whatever you want to call it. In some settings you see that and in some you don't." On the topic of her own campaign role, she jokes, "You mean the machinations?"
No, the whole, always watchable Teresa show. Despite its undeniable appeal, Teresa's candor was an issue in the earliest phase of the campaign--when, for instance, she called a pre-nup a must and said she'd maim any husband of hers who fooled around. "I never have [worried about infidelity]. Not for one day, because what I expect of them, they have a right to expect of me," she told Elle magazine. "Maybe I'm into 18-year-olds." Her loose talk is perhaps particularly high risk in these wildly polarized times, when anything can become fodder for the culture wars. Unless, of course, the political handlers have it all wrong, and should get her out in front as soon as possible. Not only could Teresa charm the faithful, but she could work crucial swing states where her moderate politics might win over voters if they could be convinced that Kerry, who's struggling at the moment, would give his Rockefeller Republican wife a voice in the White House.
At this point, she herself seems to feel it could go either way. Will she come off as the perfect antidote to claims that Kerry has no strong center--or be seen as just one more all-too-complicated, off-message distraction? Will she ultimately be seen as Teresa the loose cannon or Teresa the warm better half to a husband who can be chilly? When one of her friends, Melinda Blinken, tells her in Los Angeles the other day that the day Kerry married her was the luckiest day of his life, she frowns and says, "We'll see."
So far, her zippy quotes and personal warmth have made her a favorite with reporters, who haven't been this enthralled since W handed out the …