Teresa Heinz Kerry's accent problem.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Sept. 13 2004 7:30 PM

The Foreign Wives Club

Teresa Heinz Kerry's accent problem.

WASHINGTON—Teresa Heinz Kerry acknowledged Monday that she understands at least one of the reasons that many Americans aren't comfortable with the idea of her as first lady, or at least she came very close to acknowledging it: Many Americans are wary of her because they suspect she's not quite American—not un-American, just not exactly American either—and certainly not American enough to be first lady. In front of a luncheon sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Heinz Kerry said that some critics—she called them "my husband's critics"—have challenged her for talking about her experience as an immigrant who came to America from Africa "via Europe, where I studied." Critics say "my immigrant experience isn't representative," Heinz Kerry said. "That is such a revealing comment, because what it suggests is that they should get to decide who shares in the American dream and who doesn't. What it suggests is that the American dream doesn't belong to all of us, but only to some of us."

Heinz Kerry ought to repeat that message everywhere she goes. She's one-fourth of what may be the most heavily accented ticket in American history (though Kennedy-Johnson could give them a run for their money), and fair or not, accents matter, especially in the mass-media age. George W. Bush speaks Spanish like an American, like Peggy Hill in King of the Hill. Teresa Heinz Kerry speaks English like a foreigner. Even her admirers are influenced by her accent. In the New York Observer last week, a Manhattan writer said Heinz Kerry was "a bit Zsa Zsa—you could see her slapping a cop." More important, you could hear her doing it, dahling.

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I've always thought that John Edwards' thick Southern accent was one reason he did so poorly in New Hampshire. Northeastern liberals are predisposed to believe that anyone with a drawl is an uneducated rube, and some will even confess their prejudice. Sure, Bill Clinton was Southern, too, but he was also familiar with Northern culture. He attended Georgetown and went to Oxford. Clinton could navigate between the two worlds, and he spoke differently below the Mason-Dixon line than he did above it (or on television). Edwards sounds the same way all the time.

Heinz Kerry's accent isn't likely to put off Northern liberals, and even the ones that don't like it are likely to vote for her husband anyway. The problem could come in the rural areas of Ohio and Florida that are likely to determine the outcome of the election. President Bush slaughtered Al Gore in rural areas across the country four years ago. Kerry hopes to narrow that margin, which is why he rarely mentions abortion rights, emphasizes his status as a veteran, and distributes photos of himself hunting.

Those attributes may help Kerry some, but are they enough to offset a funny-talking wife? Even the pronunciation of her name—ter-AY-za—seems strange to people from certain parts of the country (not goofier than young John Kerry's pronunciation of "Genghis Khan," though). That's why it was so foolish of her to open her speech at the Democratic convention by speaking all five of her languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and English. To a certain brand of American, the stunt seemed either show-offy or vaguely seditious.

Everywhere he goes, President Bush says that "perhaps the most important reason to give us four more years is so that Laura will be first lady for four more years." In most presidential races, the remark would be interpreted as the self-deprecating affection of a doting husband. But in 2004, it comes across as a subtle shot at Teresa Heinz Kerry's fitness for (unofficial) office. Bill Clinton likes to say that people have to be able to imagine a candidate as the president before they can cast a ballot for him (or someday her). Right now, a lot of Americans have trouble imagining a world in which Teresa Heinz Kerry is first lady. It's not because she's opinionated, or a loose cannon, or perceived as an ice queen. It's because they haven't been convinced she's authentically American.

Outrageous? Nativist? Fine. That doesn't make it false. The best way for Teresa Heinz Kerry to overcome the prejudice against her is to recognize the doubts about her and confront them persuasively, like she did today. Her husband has already learned that ignoring something unfair, or pretending that it doesn't exist, doesn't make it go away.

Chris Suellentrop is a video game critic and a contributor to the New York Times