The Teresa Factor

Election '04

Outspoken. Wealthy. Powerful.

These are the adjectives de rigeur in any news profile of the 65-year-old wife of Senator John Kerry, as one press outlet after another this spring weighs in on the momentous question: Teresa Heinz Kerry, burden or asset?

Heinz Kerry is hardly the first recipient of this kind of attention. Virtually every auditioning First Lady in recent decades has been the focus of this media-manufactured debate. During the 1992 presidential campaign, the media made hay over the so-called "Hillary Factor," as opponents of Bill Clinton waxed eloquent about the perils of admitting an independent, successful woman with an activist bent into the White House's East Wing.

This year, it is Heinz Kerry's turn.

As a prominent and successful woman, she's the kind of political wife that draws heightened scrutiny during a political campaign. "It happened to Geraldine Ferraro's husband, to Hillary Clinton, to Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife," says Cliff Shannon, the former chief-of-staff for Senator John Heinz. It may explain why Laura Bush got off relatively easy. She recently told USA Today, "I don't think I got as much attention when we ran last time as [Heinz Kerry] has." And she's right. The last two women to vie for first spouse, Bush and Tipper Gore, had both long since left their careers -- as a librarian and a photojournalist, respectively -- by the time they hit the campaign trail in 2000.

No current career, one less stone for political opponents to unturn.

Hillary Clinton's liberal activism was the focus of Republican attacks in 1992; this year, it is Heinz Kerry's philanthropic work. She is the chair of the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Heinz Family Philanthropies, and a board member of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, reportedly overseeing assets of over one billion dollars.

Leading the attempts to give her the "Hillary treatment" thus far is the Capital Research Center (CRC), a conservative, Washington-based organization that studies the spending of nonprofits. Grant Oliphant, who served as Senator John Heinz's press secretary and is now executive director of the Heinz Endowments, says that the CRC has "aggressively tried to drum up interest in the notion it would be a conflict of interest to be an active philanthropist and also be First Lady."

In April, CRC published a report titled "The Heinz Foundations and The Kerry Campaign" which concluded ominously:

The United States has never had a wealthy spouse overshadow its president. But Teresa Heinz Kerry leads and funds philanthropic foundations and she sits on the board of directors of highly political nonprofit groups that receive her foundations' support and that can advance or frustrate the policies of her husband, should he become president. That's unprecedented political power. More public scrutiny of Heinz Kerry's public role is in order. While there is still time.
The reality is that people on both ends of the political spectrum have publicly lauded Heinz Kerry for her philanthropic activities in western Pennsylvania. According to the Boston Globe, her foundations have poured nearly $200 million into an array of environmental causes, including large sums for cleanup projects in western Pennsylvania and a riverfront park in Pittsburgh -- all of which have helped turn that region into an environmental model for the rest of the nation.

Oliphant, who served as Heinz Kerry's speechwriter and spokesman, is confident that attempts to paint her as an out-of-control liberal will fail, if only because of her Republican background. "Teresa comes out of a Republican past, she believes strongly in fiscal responsibility and sort of a more open approach to social issues which was consistent with moderate Republicanism for a long, long time," he says.

Contrary to what the CRC may claim, Heinz Kerry's strong support for the environment is not part of her liberal agenda but dates back to her days as a Republican senator's wife, when she reportedly helped persuade John Heinz to support the 1990 Clean Air Act. In fact, Heinz Kerry was a registered Republican until January 2003. And when her first husband died in a plane crash in 1991, she considered making a run to fill his seat.

Myra Gutin, a professor of communications at Rider University in New Jersey and the author of a book on first ladies, says, "I found it fascinating that [Heinz Kerry] seemed to be a rather popular Republican wife when she was married to John Heinz. And now she's being painted as somebody ... a little bit out there, somehow untrustworthy."

Republicans have at times gone to ludicrous lengths to distort the image of an opponent's wife in the past. During the 1992 presidential campaign, conservatives "found an old article [Hillary had] written for a law journal years before in which she said in certain cases children should be emancipated. They translated that into [saying] she was anti-marriage, anti-children." Gutin has no doubt that Heinz Kerry's words and actions will be the target of such creative interpretation.

Apart from attacks by her husband's political adversaries, every potential First Lady also has to grapple with the caricatured persona the media creates for every major player in an election cycle. With Heinz Kerry, journalists seem to have zeroed in on her tendency to be "candid" -- or alternatively blunt, outspoken, or impolitic. "[Teresa] is forthright in sharing her opinions. She really doesn't believe in beating around the bush," says Oliphant. "In our culture which purports to want all of those things for public figures it's supremely ironic to me that whenever someone like that comes along they get the daylights beat out of them for just those attributes."

According to conventional press wisdom, her candor combined with her seeming foreign-ness (she was born in Mozambique and speaks Portuguese-accented English) makes her seem a little, well, different, which could be a thorn in her husband's side. Take, for example, Newsweek's title of its May 3rd cover story: "Is John Kerry's Heiress Wife a Loose Cannon or Crazy Like a Fox?"

Heinz Kerry has tackled the criticism head-on, often pointing out to reporters that being outspoken is seldom viewed as a disadvantage in men. She also told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that as an immigrant she relishes her freedom to be open in her adopted country:
If you say 'speaking your mind,' it can sound like I'm coming out to make a point. But if you say 'enjoying your freedom.' it means I can say something without going to jail or losing a job. I think that's something that the press misses when they say, 'She's too frank, or she's too honest.' I'm enjoying that. I'm enjoying the freedom.
Oliphant sees three factors at play in the negative attention received by women in politics, particularly potential first ladies, today. "The first thing that's changed -- and I'd say Hillary was the first to really be the victim of it -- there are no limits anymore in terms of political attacks," he says. Next is the Internet, according to Oliphant, which makes it easy to launch disinformation campaigns against political foes.

Finally, there is our culture's ambivalent relationship with powerful women. Much like Hillary Clinton, Oliphant says, Heinz Kerry "is willing to stand up for things she believes in, speak out for things she believes in and she has strong credentials as a professional and wants to be taken seriously even if she's the president's wife." An expert on women in politics who did not want to be quoted by name, agrees: "Women who are strong leaders and a little out of the mold or role, it's like: target. [Teresa's] in a very contentious environment, so it's going to be no-holds-barred."

However, while the CRC will undoubtedly continue to call for "more public scrutiny" of Teresa Heinz Kerry, any attempt to give her the "Hillary treatment" will be that much more difficult, if only because her admirers include conservatives like Shannon. As he puts it, "She's smart, complex, has a lot of resources, and to her credit has spent the larger part of her life either raising three good children or devoting herself to causes she believes in. If that's a signal of evil, well, then I say may we have more of it."

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