John Kerry's Multimillionaire Wild Wife
Stormy and eccentric, multi-millionaire Teresa Heinz Kerry is not obvious First Lady material. But with her stepdaughters she is helping her husband scoop the Democratic presidential candidacy. Suzanne Goldenberg reports
Wild wife adventures
Thursday February 5, 2004
The "body men", whose job it is to move a candidate through crowds, extract John Kerry and his entourage from the heaving victory party, and propel them towards the television interview room. Only this time, they have left someone behind: Vanessa Kerry, the younger daughter of the Democratic frontrunner, is caught by a surge of hug-seekers and autograph-hunters. "Can you please let me get through to my dad?," she says, tapping at unyielding backs, before erupting in frustration. "Is this the way it's always going to be now?"
Well, yes. "Dad" has just won five of the seven states in contention in the Democratic primary season on Tuesday night, transforming him into a national candidate. Unless he suffers a dramatic reversal of fortunes - and this has been a wildly unpredictable race - Kerry will be the Democratic nominee and will stand against President George Bush in the US elections in November.
If Kerry does go the distance, Vanessa, 27, and her elder sister, Alexandra, 30, will be by his side. Undoubtedly, their stepmother, Teresa Heinz Kerry, will also be making multiple appearances during the campaign, travelling solo in her private plane, the Flying Squirrel.
Americans traditionally take an interest in those who would be their first families, but in this primary season, the home lives of candidates have been on display more than ever before. Wives, children, stepchildren, mothers and brothers have been campaigning on their own, or exerting their influence behind the scenes. Kerry would not be the first divorcÚ to become president, but his "blended" family might be seen as the most unconventional to occupy the White House - unless his handlers succeed in reining in the occasionally volatile Mrs Kerry.
She inherited a fortune worth more than $550m when her first husband was killed in a plane crash. He was a scion of the food empire, as well as a longtime Republican senator who was also thought of as a presidential contender.
Back to January 19 ... Kerry is in Des Moines, Iowa, and minutes away from the victory that launched his drive to the Democratic nomination. As he takes his seat, Vanessa is talking to an aide. Alexandra, the film student, is crouched beside the television camera, and gauges the angles, tapping her shoulders to tell her father not to slouch. He gives a sheepish grin and complies.
Teresa Heinz Kerry is there as well, parrot-green scarf draped over a black trouser suit. As her husband moves around the room, meeting a selected group of campaign supporters, she is the one gently pressing on his elbow, steering him towards the major donors and the local Democratic party grandees.
The supporting role seems slightly strange for her - at least compared to the reputation that has followed her in the US media. She is seen as tempestuous, eccentric, wilful and rich. Much of the evidence for those charges is drawn from a disastrous interview the Kerrys granted to the Washington Post two years ago at home in Washington, DC.
To the reporter's delight, Heinz Kerry had a framed photograph of herself with the late John Heinz in the hall, and did not bother to correct the slip when she referred to him as "my husband". Then she had a blazing row with her living husband Kerry over a Republican from Pennsylvania who insulted the memory of her first spouse.
To Kerry's mortification, she went on to mimic him having a nightmare flashback to his days in Vietnam - beating her head and shouting "down, down, down". She also revealed that he had been in therapy seconds after Kerry tried to deny it.
Since then, Heinz Kerry has enlivened American political debate by revealing that she signed a prenuptial agreement to protect her fortune, threatened to maim her first husband if he was unfaithful, and resorts regularly to Botox.
But here is more to her than the re-circulation of such stories in the media. The daughter of a Portuguese doctor who grew up in colonial-era Mozambique, she speaks five languages, and worked at the United Nations as an interpreter before her marriage. Since her first husband's death, she has played an active role in managing charities worth more than one billion dollars. She has said she plans to continue that work if Kerry is elected.
She is also a seasoned campaigner, having accompanied her late husband through several election cycles. She knows what is expected of her, telling CNN this week that the presidential spouse's first job is supporting her partner. "I mean by that, keep your president strong, healthy, keep them honest. And then, by that I mean, remember who he is in his heart, why he got there, and help him - help him keep his ego inflated or her ego, if they get knocked too much, and deflated a little if it gets too high."
But despite that acute understanding of her situation and role, Heinz Kerry cannot seem to follow Laura Bush's example of steering smilingly away from controversy. Her evident talents do not include a proclivity for standing on stage looking adoringly up at her husband, and smiling, smiling, smiling. On the stage she fidgets or gazes off in the middle-distance, openly bored with the stump speech she must have heard countless times by now. She is not big on smiling, and tenses when her husband moves in for the ritual hug.
Her own turns at public events can be an exercise in suspense. In Iowa, at the defining event of Kerry's campaign, she got on stage to deliver a long and meandering treatise about how the American midwest reminded her of the dorps of South Africa, and how Iowa farmers had an "earthy" view of life. Her husband stood beside her, visibly wincing. In smaller forums, she has been known to hector Democratic supporters about how eating organic can prevent cancer.
Such unscripted moments are the dread of Kerry's campaign handlers. But so far, they appear to be doing no harm, and to the discomfiture of the rightwing press, Americans appear to be taking to Heinz Kerry.
For all her foibles, she shows up the human side to a candidate who desperately needs it. With his thin frame, sepulchral face, and old-fashioned speaking style, Kerry seems cold, a flinty New Englander incapable of connecting to ordinary Americans. His wife makes him seem like a romantic.
The morning chatshows have taken note of their age difference - she is 65 and he is 60 - and their first real date, a moonlit walk to the Vietnam war memorial after a Washington dinner party. There are also approving comments on her loyalty to the memory of her first husband, to whom she was married for 25 years.
Such exhaustive examinations of family life have become routine for American politicians. No matter what changes have affected the workplace and the home over the past decades, American voters expect to see the entire family before they pass judgment on a candidate.
That is what Howard Dean discovered when he tried to break the mould. His campaign for the Democratic nomination began to lose momentum, in part because of speculation about his absentee wife. Judith Steinberg Dean stayed at home in Vermont looking after her medical practice and their two children. She was too busy with her work to campaign, she told reporters, and she did not watch her husband on the stump because she is not that keen on television.
Other candidates have been careful to cultivate an image of happy families. John Edwards has travelled the country with his wife, Elizabeth. She gave up work as a lawyer and in her late 40s underwent fertility treatment to have two more children. (An older daughter is at university. Their first child was killed in a car crash). General Wesley Clark has his wife, Gertie, a non-working military wife, and his outspoken son, Wes Junior.
Kerry has his three women to bring out his human side: Heinz Kerry, Vanessa and Alexandra. All three have often been brought out centre stage at campaign events, oozing the personal warmth that somehow eludes the man in their lives, and softening up the crowds.
At times, the daughters play a double act, joking about their father's attempts to be cool, reminiscing about family holidays. Sometimes, they play back-up to their stepbrother, Chris Heinz, who has natural charisma and seems to have built up a campaign act based on Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions. Of Kerry's two daughters, Vanessa appears far more comfortable with the limelight. A graduate of Yale - like her father - and a medical student at Harvard, she took the year out so she could campaign for him, and has been on a speaking tour of college campuses.
However, Alexandra has also been meeting campaign workers in California, where she lives. She has plenty of admirers in the chat rooms of Kerry supporters who marvel at her ability to hit the campaign trail and complete her film project thesis. (She has a small role in a new David Mamet thriller about two US special agents seeking the missing daughter of a senior government official).
All of this has helped Kerry. Now his success on the campaign trail appears to be helping his wife as well. As he continues his quest from front-running candidate to Democratic nominee, Teresa Heinz Kerry is is in the process of her own, equally public, transformation. At first, she told CNN this week, she had reservations about his candidacy. "I was a little afraid of it. Not a little. It really is an awesome thing," she said. "I made peace with that ... I soldiered behind him."
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