"My name is Teresa Heinz Kerry"

As the candidate's wife revealed to wild applause Tuesday night, she will not be boxed in, focus grouped or stifled with a tight smile and a stiff wave.

Published July 28, 2004 7:56AM (EDT)

Teresa Heinz Kerry didn't talk about her Botox, her prenup, or how good-looking John Edwards is. She didn't say she would give up her fortune to have her dead husband back, or tell George W. Bush to "shove it." But in her highly anticipated prime-time speech before the Democratic convention on Tuesday, she defended her right to say any or all of those things.

"My name is Teresa Heinz Kerry," she said. "And by now I hope it will come as no surprise to anyone that I have something to say."

In convention parlance, Heinz Kerry "stuck to the script." She's known for freewheeling ad-libs, but her speech was on teleprompter, a device she used for the first time. Although she penned her own remarks -- her husband read them beforehand -- all texts delivered from the podium had to be "vetted" by the campaign. Still, that didn't keep Teresa from being Teresa.

Indeed, her personality beamed through Democratic Party control. She is fluent in five languages and sampled them all with greetings in English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. She captured the crowd by relating how she grew up in Mozambique under a dictatorship, and described how her upbringing and journey here as an immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen inspired her independence.

"My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some have called 'opinionated,' is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish," she said. "My only hope is that, one day soon, women -- who have all earned the right to their opinions -- instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart or well-informed, just as men are."

Above all, Heinz Kerry came to tell the American people why her husband should be president of the United States. Earlier this week, she was misunderstood when she remarked that no mortal is qualified to be president, although her husband "was pretty close to it." But now she spoke without qualifications.

Many Americans say they do not know enough about Kerry, and his wife's speech helped bridge the gap. After being warmly introduced by her son, Chris Heinz, she wove praise for "John" through a series of issues dear to her. A dedicated philanthropist, she oversees an estimated $1 billion fortune inherited when her late husband, ketchup heir and GOP Sen. John Heinz, died in a plane crash.

"With John Kerry as president, global climate change and other threats to the health of our planet will begin to be reversed," she said. "With John Kerry as president, the alliances that bind the community of nations and that truly make our country and the world a safer place, will be strengthened once more."

Heinz Kerry stayed dignified and elegant -- like "a great European actress," someone on CNN said -- but got in a passing swipe at rival George W. Bush. "John is a fighter," she said. "He earned his medals the old-fashioned way -- by putting his life on the line for his country."

But her performance was being scrutinized not for what she would say about Kerry so much as whether she would go "off-message." On Sunday, Heinz Kerry was caught on camera in a confrontation with an editorial writer for a Pittsburgh newspaper owned by right-wing philanthropist and Whitewater figure Richard Mellon Scaife. She eventually told the journalist, as everyone in America has no doubt heard by now, to "shove it."

She and the campaign then endured two days of endless questioning in the media -- "Is Teresa Heinz Kerry an asset or a liability?" -- just in time for the Democrats' big moment. But Kerry himself seemed unfazed by the "shove it" affair. "I think my wife speaks her mind appropriately," he said on Monday.

In an interview with CBS, Heinz Kerry spoke for herself passionately and persuasively. "I defended my rights," she said. "I defended my freedom and personally I defended my integrity, and I think any American would do that. And I would certainly applaud them for doing that and find them very weak if they didn't."

Heinz Kerry has made clear that as a political wife, she will not be boxed in, focus grouped and stifled with a tight smile and a stiff wave. When stumping for her husband, she is known for making creative and daring statements like this argument for condom use: "I keep saying that if you're really Christian ... you want an alive body that you can make into a Christian, rather than a dead one that's hopeless."

Heinz Kerry's authenticity and originality are characteristics many Americans admire, or say they admire, in political figures. When John McCain delivers unexpected, unscripted moments, he is called a "maverick." But when Teresa Heinz Kerry speaks her mind, she is called "kooky," "bizarre," "offbeat," and a potential vote-killer for her husband. This double standard is not lost on Heinz Kerry.

But the media fascination with Heinz Kerry also stems from how she stands in contrast to bland political personalities. Campaigns are so choreographed these days -- especially the conventions -- even the slightest excitement is enough to perk up reporters whose eyes have long ago glazed over. Hours before Heinz Kerry's speech, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Kerry's stepdaughter, Vanessa Kerry, if she thought the "shove it" brouhaha resulted from "reporters with nothing else to report." Vanessa, clearly tired of the controversy, replied, "Yes, actually."

It may also be that reporters just don't know what to do with Heinz Kerry. "Because she is so unique she is an unusual commodity for the press," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said. "But it's really what the American people will say. They want someone who cares, who has a heart, and who speaks her mind, and that is what she does."

But outspoken, passionate and frank women are also often -- still -- threatening and polarizing. Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton. Heinz Kerry's poll numbers aren't quite as divided as the former first lady's, but an ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that Heinz Kerry had twice the unfavorable rating as Laura Bush: 26 percent had an unfavorable view of Heinz Kerry; 12 percent of Bush.

And Laura Bush doesn't have to contend with negative media coverage as does Heinz Kerry, who has faced pressure to release her tax returns. The Scaife-owned Tribune-Review has been on her case publishing factually dubious "investigative" pieces on her estate and charities that have migrated into other conservative publications. And Tuesday, a 1976 story from the Boston Herald surfaced with critical comments she made then about Ted Kennedy, prompting both the Kerry campaign and Kennedy's office to say they were all good friends and that the excavation of the 30-year-old story was the work of Republicans.

Howard Dean, who knows a thing or two about impassioned and spontaneous outbursts, and whose wife, Judy, was also dissected and labeled by the media, came to Heinz Kerry's defense at a Take Back America conference Tuesday afternoon. He pointed out the "shove it" hype and reminded listeners that the Pittsburgh paper was owned by Scaife. "That trumps the Boston Herald," he said. Dean shook his head, chuckled, and compared the Herald to the National Enquirer. To the roar of the crowd, he said, "Kerry's gonna win the election because of his wife. She's fantastic, isn't she?"

The delegates at the Fleet Center seemed to agree, the thunder of their applause filling the hall. "There is a value in taking a stand whether or not anyone may be noticing and whether or not it is a risky thing to do," Heinz Kerry was saying. "And if even those who are in danger can raise their lonely voices, isn't more required of all of us, in this land where liberty had her birth?"

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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