Teresa Heinz.

Teresa Heinz.

Teresa Heinz.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Dec. 11 2003 6:57 PM

Teresa Heinz

Why John Kerry needs some of his wife's sauce.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

When Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean Tuesday, he delivered a swift kick to the gut of John Kerry, who hardly needed one. All but doomed in Iowa, Kerry finds himself sliding in the polls in New Hampshire, too; a recent Zogby survey puts him 30 points behind Dean. It's hard to pin down why, exactly. Some point to the squabbles of his campaign advisers or his tangled positions on the war. Others cite his fondness for rhetoric so lofty it floats out of reach like a lost balloon. But one way to understand why the Kerry campaign has faltered is to study the case of the candidate's wife.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast.

From the outset, Kerry's advisers kept a wary eye on Teresa Heinz. As the widow of Pennsylvania senator and ketchup heir John Heinz, who died in 1991 when his plane collided with a helicopter, she inherited around $500 million and responsibility for the billion-dollar Heinz family endowment. As she waded into state politics, she demonstrated a knack for the salty comments that make for riveting copy: She denounced Rick Santorum as "Forrest Gump with an attitude" when the conservative Republican ran for her more moderate first husband's seat. When she married Kerry in 1995, her association with the two ambitious senators—and speculation that the fortune of the first might bankroll the presidential ambitions of the second—made her even more intriguing than your average workaday heiress.

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Journalists began sizing up Heinz when Kerry was still just "considering" a presidential run. In June 2002, the Washington Post'sMark Leibovich interviewed Heinz and Kerry and delivered a dishy take on their relationship, insinuating that Heinz was still very much in love with her first husband and prone to walking all over the second. Leibovich noted that Heinz still referred to John Heinz as "my husband" and that his photo hung alongside Kerry's in the hall. In conversation with Kerry, though, Heinz "snaps," "raises her voice," works up "a full head of rage," and "mimics Kerry having a Vietnam nightmare," just moments after he denies having any. In response, Kerry "fidgets," "exhales a long, loud sigh," and "tries to play down his wife's agitation." When he suggests that she make peace with Santorum, she refuses: "I don't have to be that politic." At the end of the article, anonymous Kerry staffers wonders how to "handle Teresa" and sum up the dilemma: Her bluntness could become a problem.

Kerry's fledgling bid was generating a nice murmuring buzz at the time, and the Leibovich story stuck out like a bad patch of static. The problem seemed evident. When the election rolled around, it wouldn't do to have Heinz sound so bossy and Kerry sound so whipped. Pundits argued that the unpredictable Heinz's strident manner and off-kilter comments would distract voters from the meat of Kerry's message. To his credit, Kerry has always said he considers his wife a political asset, but members of his campaign spoke with the press about reining her in. In September 2002, the campaign hired Chris Black, a former CNN reporter, to serve as Heinz's chief of communications. And in two moves that neatly showcased how Heinz was willing to make adjustments for the sake of her man, she switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat—even though she had long vowed she'd never "cross the aisle" for Kerry—and agreed to use the name Teresa Heinz Kerry in campaign literature. (According to Black, the move was intended to help voters "out of Massachusetts" realize that the pair are legally wed.)

But as the campaign wore on, Heinz proved impervious to media training. At a fund-raiser shortly after Kerry's successful surgery for prostate cancer, campaign staffers sought to breeze past any mention of the illness, hoping to keep voters from linking Kerry too closely with vulnerability or disease. But in a 20-minute, off-the-cuff diatribe, Heinz offered details about the surgery and urged all men to get checked out. At other fund-raisers, she waxed discursive on her favorite sunscreen (Clinique), the healing properties of green tea, and the charms of life in Europe. In a June 2003 profile in Elle, she said she used Botox and would consider plastic surgery, that "everybody has a prenup," that she would "maim" her husband if she caught him cheating on her. She also commented on changing her name: "Now, politically, it's going to be Teresa Heinz Kerry, but I don't give a shit, you know? There are other things to worry about."

Then something strange happened: Just after Labor Day, Heinz began to spend considerable time on the trail. She appeared in far-flung early primary states both alongside her husband and without him. She chatted about health care with suburban women, visited art openings and college campuses, and spoke Spanish and French with the patrons of a Manchester, N.H., barbershop. (Born in Mozambique to a prosperous Portuguese family, Heinz speaks five languages and has worked as a translator for the United Nations.) She's ruffled few feathers and seemed less like a distraction than an asset. This should not have been surprising: Heinz had already proved herself an able campaigner during her years in Pennsylvania. And when Kerry fought a grueling Senate re-election bid against Bill Weld in 1996, Heinz flew into action, giving speeches in Portuguese to local communities, meeting with the editorial boards of small-town newspapers, shaking so many hands at the Democratic National Convention that she inflamed the tendonitis in her right arm.

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Instead of treating Heinz like a pariah the Kerry campaign should have made her one of its biggest stars. No one knows how much a larger presence from Heinz could have moved the polls for her husband's campaign. But in its efforts to "handle" her, the Kerry campaign did what it always does: It made cautious, mincing steps in response to its critics. Flustered by the teapot-sized media tempest about how Heinz would play on the trail, Kerry's campaign tamped down just what it should have played up.

Perhaps what the Kerry campaign could have used, in fact, was not just a bigger dose of Teresa Heinz herself but an infusion of her devil-may-care attitude. In the face of withering criticism, Heinz tends to stamp her foot and do what she wants. (Ask her Boston neighbors about the time she had the city move a fire hydrant so she could have a place to park.) Trailing badly in the polls, Kerry has mounted a last-ditch effort to appear similarly fiery, giving an obscenity-laced interview this month to Rolling Stone. But it's much too late for that. He should have gone to his wife for daily talking points all along.

Heinz's sterling résumé exceeds that of your typical political wife—in fact, it exceeds that of your typical political candidate. She testified before Congress about pension policy, lobbied members of the first Bush administration about lead poisoning, and persuaded Massachusetts to adopt a prescription drug program that was developed with Heinz foundation money. When her first husband died, she took charge of the Heinz fortune and significantly revamped the group's giving strategy. She focused on the environment, and in 1993, one of the Heinz endowments put up $20 million to found the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, which brought together businessmen, academics, and environmental advocates and sought to find nonpartisan solutions to ecological problems. She subscribed to the pragmatic and controversial belief that environmental solutions were useless unless they might one day be adopted by industry. It was not what many environmentalists wanted, but Heinz did it anyway.

In fact, as Kerry's wayward campaign putters along, you have to ask: Is the wrong Kerry running for office? After Heinz's first husband died, Bob Dole and Arlen Specter encouraged her to run for his Senate seat as a Republican. She seriously considered a 1994 bid, before having the good sense to opt out. She explained: "Today's most creative thinking is not happening in Washington. Today, political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises." It's too bad her husband's campaign hasn't taken the critique to heart.