Think Different: Teresa Heinz Kerry, Who Speaks Her Mind (and Can Do So in Five Languages), Is Not Your Typical Politician's Wife. That Ought to Be a Good Thing

By Wildman, Sarah | The American Prospect, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Think Different: Teresa Heinz Kerry, Who Speaks Her Mind (and Can Do So in Five Languages), Is Not Your Typical Politician's Wife. That Ought to Be a Good Thing


Wildman, Sarah, The American Prospect


ON A STEAMY WASHINGTON NIGHT IN early June, a moneyed crowd of gay men and lesbians gathered in the vaulted hall at the National Museum of Women in the Arts for a John Kerry fund raiser. The big draw that night was not actress Sharon Gless (Queer As Folk, Cagney and Lacey) but the arguably more entertaining, and certainly more outspoken, Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the candidate.

The audience embraced Heinz Kerry, who compared her bewilderment and alienation as an immigrant in the 1960s to the ongoing alienation of the gay community in America today. She even spoke of relying at the time on her own family of friends, a concept that's long been bandied about in the gay community. But despite the warm reception, few outsiders heard about the event. That's because the press wasn't allowed.

"I can understand why the campaign shelters her," says a fund-raiser who was there. Apparently Heinz Kerry, as she's wont to do, meandered a bit, offering her opinion that women over 65 (she's 66) are discarded by American culture. Nevertheless, "She was personal and warm and intellectual and made connections that were valuable and insightful," enthused the fund-raiser. "If she's misunderstood, I think it's because she refuses to stay on message but maybe she's a little [too] smart for that." Heinz Kerry, the fund-raiser said, seems like "someone who sat around reading Hannah Arendt." Just the type of glowing recommendation that the campaign would surely love to suppress.

Yet Teresa Heinz Kerry, outside of her decidedly unapproachable wealth, appears to be the most genuine and approachable potential first lady the country has had in a long time. Partly that's because, despite spending her adulthood as a political spouse, her cultural cues seem to come not from Washington but from an immigrant experience. Unfortunately, her lack of pretension, not to mention lack of stump speeches, has gotten her in trouble--most notably, in her admission to Elle magazine's Lisa DePaulo that she and Kerry had a prenuptial agreement, and that she'd used Botox and would again. A fight with her husband over a longstanding feud with Republican Senator Rick Santorum in front of The Washington Post's Mark Leibovich didn't help. After such mishaps, the campaign has sheltered her.

It's a mistake. Rather than running from Heinz Kerry's inability to self-censor, campaign strategists should harness it, exploiting her lack of artifice, her world awareness, and her activist roots. "She has been painted as some one who is nontraditional," says Rider University first-ladies historian Myra Gutin, "and someone whose background, as American first ladies go, would seem to be exotic."

By most standards, it is. Born in Mozambique in 1938 to Portuguese colonists--Heinz Kerry's father was that country's first oncologist--she was educated in Switzerland and South Africa. She is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. It was in Geneva where she met her future husband, ketchup heir John Heinz III, who would become a moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania. Teresa moved to the United States, married Heinz in 1966, bore three boys, and remained married for 25 years, until the senator died in a plane crash in 1991.

With Heinz's death, she found herself not only bewildered and grieving but also heir to a multimillion-dollar fortune and in charge of the family foundation. Declining offers to run for Heinz's Senate seat, she instead immersed herself in the foundation, becoming, by all accounts, a very savvy philanthropist at a very progressive endowment. She also founded the Heinz Awards, in memory of her husband, which recognize progressive thinkers in the arts, public policy, the human condition, technology, the environment, and economics. Four years after Heinz's death, she married John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts, to whom her husband had introduced her in 1990. The pair had run into each other at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the two had, by all accounts, a modern courtship. …

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