To argue that Teresa Heinz Kerry is not a mercurial eccentric is to fly against the winds of consensus straight into the arms of truth. It's a lonely trip.
In Pittsburgh she has long been seen as a suburban wife who happened to have married a very rich man who became a senator. After John Heinz died in 1991, she took over the family endowments and became an establishment figure in a moderate town. In a place where plain speech is the norm and an accent is no more exotic than one's grandparents, Teresa Heinz was rich without being outlandish. In a city filled with opinions, hers were no more plentiful than those of the average football fan but given in a softer voice.
Thus far even fawning profiles, such as Newsweek's of this spring, reflected the personality assigned to Heinz Kerry by central casting.
"Loose Cannon or Crazy Like a Fox?" the headline demanded. That it might not be either is hardly tantalizing to people strolling past a newsstand. If La Teresa seems testy these days, it could be that she is weary of people fishing for an angle and using her as live bait.
Marla Romash, a Democratic consultant who spent the summer traveling with Heinz Kerry, was perplexed by the strange dichotomy between the irksome scold the press sometimes depicts and the contemplative woman she actually met.
"When people get to see her close up, it's hard not to fall in love," Romash said. "The problem is that not enough people get to see her close up. The people in Pittsburgh have gotten to see her close up for a lot of years."
The close-up of Teresa Heinz Kerry was on view in Lawrence County two weeks ago. She joined a panel discussion on women's health issues. Her voice was almost somnolent. She spoke about how "many of us live very isolated lives," and talked about health care, family, jobs. Such events sell the woman well, but they lack a center of gravity on which reporters can focus. In such settings, a gaffe is a godsend.
There is, too, the fact that Heinz Kerry is great in normal settings with normal people. But she continues to act like an average person when thrust into very abnormal situations, such as rallies, conventions and photographer scrums.
Her most famous media treatment came during the Democratic National Convention, where Heinz Kerry encountered an unabashedly partisan editorial writer for a newspaper that has, in the past, red-baited her and more recently published a sloppily researched article alleging she funds radical groups. She told the man to "shove it." Impolitic? Yes. A woman on the verge of madness? Hardly. It's what any Pittsburgher would have told an avowed enemy.
In short, Teresa Heinz Kerry behaves normally in normal situations and normally in aberrant situations that call for stagecraft and phoniness. Consequently, she seems weird.
I tested this thesis two Fridays ago. Heinz Kerry made a stop at the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library to meet with leaders of Pittsburgh's African-American community. Her speech -- more of a conversation, really -- rambled. It was discursive, ranged over topics from health care to the years as a student in South Africa when she marched against apartheid to an interesting thought about why our erstwhile allies in Europe are so angry with us that American students are calling themselves Canadians to avoid hassle.
"We are the expectation and the hope and the freedom beacon to the world," she said. "We are not living up to their expectations."
An Associated Press reporter was nearby and told me he was there to pick up any outlandish statements. The subsequent story talked about Heinz Kerry's candor by saying she makes no apologies for it.
Assuming people are weighing this in their heads, the suggestion seems to be that some think she should apologize for having opinions. Imagine a candidate sending someone out with instructions to say nothing.
A day earlier, Heinz Kerry met with volunteers gathering aid for Caribbean victims of Hurricane Ivan. There, she spoke candidly -- if artlessly -- but in the syntax of someone who gives the brief message up front, then sorts out her reasoning. What Heinz Kerry wanted to convey was that these disasters are too often an occasion for people to dump their unwanted clothes onto charities, but that food, medicine and water are what is needed. Here's what she said: "Clothing is wonderful, but let them go naked for a while, at least the kids. Water is necessary, and then generators, and then food, and then clothes."
Within hours, "Let them go naked" was the Heinz Kerry quote of the day.
At midday, Fred Honsberger, a talk-show host at KDKA, a station whose daily broadcast should be listed as an in-kind contribution to the Bush campaign, took to the air. "Let them go naked!" he roared. Teresa Heinz Kerry, he said, was "Marie Antoinette."
By then, Heinz Kerry was on her way to Centre County, for a rally at Penn State. One thousand people made it into the hall, and another thousand waited outside. A solo musician warmed up the crowd. The Penn State College Republicans, most of whom would not explain themselves to reporters, waited outside with signs saying "All Hail the Ketchup Queen" and "Teresa Go Home."
Shades of the French Revolution were inescapable in that setting. Inside, Heinz Kerry spoke with a voice so tiny it seemed as if at any moment she might vanish. Outside, roars between protesters and counter-protesters lent an air of imminent siege.
"We think her actions are not what America's looking for in a first lady," said Andy Banducci, chairman of the College Republicans. Another protester, Joe Coulter, said he objected to Heinz Kerry supporting her current husband after having been married to Republican John Heinz: "So she kind of flip-flopped on that."
Inside, Heinz Kerry gave a speech with slightly more pepper -- certainly more grist for her enemies. She called the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto environmental treaty "an insult to possibility," and rose to her own defense: "Never again should a woman who has thought about something be called 'opinionated.' Just smart."
The topper, had anyone chosen to run with it, was a broad hint that maybe Osama bin Laden would be conveniently captured sometime in the next four weeks. The problem, of course, is that her listeners got the joke and the protesters outside were shouting too loudly to have heard anything but their own calcified opinions.
Stephanie Kline, a 20-year-old junior from Lehigh County, came "to actually see her for myself. I guess the impression I get is she's actually a kind of a bold woman. I think she's a tough woman, but I guess that's important. I know maybe some people don't like that, but I do."
She appeared surprised when I told her that, save for her wealth, people in Pittsburgh don't think Teresa Heinz Kerry is altogether unusual.
By the end of the event, Heinz Kerry worked a rope line outside the auditorium, thanking the people who couldn't get inside to hear her. The College Republicans rushed to and fro with their signs, shouting. By now it would seem Heinz Kerry is used to this sort of thing, but as someone who has observed her for 20 years, it's hard to get used to seeing a woman long viewed as clear-spoken and commonsensical given the sort of treatment Michael Jackson gets at his court appearances.
"Among the grad students, she's perceived as a very sophisticated person," said Jessica Barks, a graduate instructor in the History Department. Sophistication is usually a matter of appearance. What Teresa Heinz Kerry is feeling just now is hard to tell. She's being quoted so enthusiastically nobody pauses to ask her what she means.
Copyright ©1997-2004 PG Publishing Co.