Think Different

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 someone 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.

Exotic or not, Heinz Kerry is in many ways more typical of modern American women than her predecessors in the East Wing. She's completely upfront about the difficulties she's had syncing her family with Kerry's, and with balancing her identities in order to best support the campaign. And while she would be only the second foreign-born first lady (Louisa Adams was the first), she represents all those Americans that the GOP likes to pretend don't exist: immigrants, intellectuals, women with careers, second marriages, blended families. Witness the comment from über-conservative Gary Bauer, who opined that while Laura Bush “reminds Americans of themselves--someone they can talk to between the back fence or at a cookout,” Heinz Kerry is just a “senator's wife associated with a great fortune and a more urbane style--a tough, opinionated lady.”

It's ironic given Heinz Kerry's pretty traditional record: She came to her career after her children were grown, she espouses a family-first philosophy, and she is deeply mixed about abortion. What we come away with is the idea that while first ladies are, by definition, in a gilded cage, Democratic first ladies are in a completely untenable position: They can't be too rich or too career focused because that will alienate mainstream America, and they can't be too traditional because that will alienate the more progressive base.

Of course, candidates' wives have always been used to help establish the iconography of the president. (Jacqueline Kennedy, hating that role, swore she'd “get pregnant and stay pregnant,” as it was the “only way out” of the media maelstrom.) The drama of Ronald Reagan's funeral was made fuller by the image of the now-fragile Nancy reaching out to his coffin. Bookish Laura in 2000, who told the world that Dostoyevsky was her favorite author, made George seem a little less frivolous (despite the campaign scrubbing all the dark parts of Dostoyevsky out of her system).

It was with team Clinton in 1992, though, where it got really awful. Hillary was supposed to be a fully realized wife, mother, feminist, and lawyer, all to illustrate her husband's bona fides as a husband, father, and feminist in his own right. She was forced to retreat back into traditional roles, so as to not appear “uncontrollable.” By the time she wrote It Takes a Village, she was almost unrecognizable. And, most disappointingly, she was only fully embraced after garnering sympathy during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Invariably, when a woman is used to validate a candidate's character, she loses herself. Teresa Heinz Kerry has resisted the narrative. “I can only be me,” she recently told Barbara Walters. “Americans want real people. I'm a real person … . I may not be what everybody would like to see, but it's real.”

This “realness” was evident in the painful public deliberations about her name. In what was undoubtedly a heart-stopping moment for her aides, she told USA Today that “Teresa Heinz Kerry is my name … for politics.” As she has said many times, while she loves John Kerry, she had a long life before him, and she can't be expected to suddenly act as though she never knew anything or anyone but him. And yet, while that's the sound bite, the explanation is far rawer than we're used to from a candidate's wife; it's hard to think it won't have resonance among Americans. Heinz Kerry has sworn that she will continue her work at the foundation even if she adds a sixth home--the White House--to her stable. “She doesn't want to be involved in policy per se or hold an official job,” her spokeswoman, Christine Anderson, told The Guardian. “She would rather keep working on the issues she cares about. She wants to keep her job to run the Heinz Endowments, and she would keep doing that if she were first lady.”

We should be thrilled. Instead, Heinz Kerry makes many voters anxious. Indeed, her candor often contradicts her husband's carefully scripted (and undoubtedly field-tested) messages. “You can't talk about marginalization in a campaign that celebrates the center,” says historian Gil Troy, author of Mrs. And Mrs. President, referring to the gay fund-raiser in Washington. “So far [Heinz Kerry] seems way too complicated, passionate, articulate, and iconoclastic to fit in a box, and that's why she's a walking danger zone.”

It should be possible to have the personality--and biography--of Teresa Heinz Kerry and be a good Democrat, an asset to the candidate, and a supportive spouse. “Teresa can see and appreciate things about this country that [native-born Americans] take absolutely for granted,” says Carl Sferazza Anthony, another first-ladies historian. And yet the media's gleeful recording of her every verbal hiccup, and her forceful determination to maintain some semblance of the life she has always known, has some deciding that the country simply isn't ready for such a woman. The discomfort comes partly because she highlights the distinctly ridiculous role into which we continue to force the president's wife.

Another problem is party affiliation. Democrats are expected to be more progressive, yet their wives are burdened by expectations from both sides. It explains why Heinz Kerry has been chastised for being anti-feminist by The Washington Post, for example, for taking the name Kerry, while simultaneously being criticized by conservatives for having too much power over environmental issues by staying on at the Heinz Endowments. (Power? Can anyone say Halliburton?)

“Republicans have more social permission to be rich and more permission to have wives who are doing progressive things,” explains historian Troy, who cites Mitch McConnell, Elaine Chao, and the Doles as good examples of well-respected Republican couples with wives in decidedly nontraditional roles. (I'd throw in the whole Cheney clan for good measure.) Troy thinks Heinz Kerry's “greatest potential as an asset will be if [her husband] can carve out an Eleanor Roosevelt role for her as an emissary to the left,” like gays and women and environmentalists, “while Kerry plays center.”

The bigger question is whether Heinz Kerry would want that role. Wouldn't it be nice if she actually had a choice in the matter?

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.