Teresa Heinz Kerry: Too much attitude for a First Lady?

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The Independent Online

The first glimpse most of us had of Teresa Heinz Kerry was the night her husband, John Kerry, won the Iowa caucuses, the first round in the long race for the Democratic nomination for president. She looked glamorous, with a green cashmere shawl around her shoulders. She smiled, flashed a thumbs-up to the crowd. But wait. Was she talking to someone else on the podium in the middle of his victory speech?

She was. But don't be surprised. No one can accuse Heinz Kerry, 65, of not doing her bit for her husband's campaign, darting about the country to warm up voters, often on her own. She uses a private jet to lend a campaigning hand. But rest assured, she is no "prop" or ever could be. Here is a political spouse who has plenty to say, almost all of it compelling - about the world, about the Bush White House, about policy, about her own less than smooth life story - and never mind if sometimes she uses blunt language or chooses the wrong moment.

The question has been a favourite in the political parlours of Washington, DC, ever since the notion of a Kerry bid arose. Would the outspoken and stupendously wealthy woman he married in 1995, who has freely spoken of her Botox use and of their prenuptial agreement, be tamable? Would she be an asset or a liability? And could someone of such daunting presence play the role of First Lady?

Fuel to the gossip was an interview she gave to The Washington Post in the summer of 2002. She spoke adorably of "her husband" as "the love of my life", except that the man she meant was not Kerry but rather the first man she married, John Heinz, the Republican senator who died in a plane crash in 1991 just after their 25th anniversary. She recalled saying "over my dead body" whenever ideas of Heinz running for president had come up. She admitted to not adopting Kerry's name. And she said she was a Republican.

Perhaps because of the fuss her comments caused, she has made a couple of concessions to politics. Last year, she did two things: she became a registered Democrat in Massachusetts, where Kerry is the junior senator. And she tacked Kerry on to her name. She has not stopped speaking her mind, though. On the name thing: "Politically, it's going to be Heinz Kerry," she recently said. "But I don't give a shit, you know?" And she wanted us to know that when news of the Iowa victory first came through, her husband was not immediately available to pop the champagne corks. He was on the loo.

A large place in her heart is clearly still occupied by her late husband. But that is something for Senator Kerry, 60, to deal with, not the country. Then there is all that money. When Heinz died, leaving her and three children, Teresa inherited an estate of about $550m. Not only is she not a shrinking violet, she also happens to be one of the richest women in America.

The story of Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira began, however, very far away from the United States.

Born to a Portuguese doctor, she was raised in Mozambique amid the tennis-and-cocktails comforts of colonial life in Africa. But she shocked her parents by joining anti-apartheid marches while at college in South Africa. From there she travelled to Geneva to interpreter school, capitalising on her fluency in five languages. It was in the Swiss city that she met John Heinz, on an exchange year from Harvard Business School. He told her at first only that his father "made soup" back home. In fact, he was the great-grandson of the Heinz who founded the food giant in 1869.

The couple moved to the US together and Teresa got a job interpreting for the United Nations. They married in 1966 and had three sons, Chris, Andre and John Heinz IV. Teresa, who still speaks with an almost unidentifiable accent and in low, even sometimes inaudible, tones, became an American citizen in 1971. The same year John was elected by voters in Pittsburgh to Congress in Washington.

It was a telephone call to the Heinz house in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington - which she now shares with Kerry - that broke Teresa's world. John's plane had collided with a helicopter and crashed into a Pennsylvania schoolyard. Her life had seemed perfect until then. "And then, whoa, it's gone," she said to the Post. "That was so unkind. That was so unkind."

Widowed, she turned down offers to fill her husband's vacant Senate seat and later to run for election to replace him. The seat was won by Republican Rick Santorum, whom she cannot abide, once describing him as "Forrest Gump with attitude". To steady her own grief, she began taking Prozac, one tablet a day. She also plunged herself into running the Heinz charitable foundation, becoming one of America's most important philanthropists. In Pittsburgh, where she has focused much of her work, she was dubbed "Saint Teresa" by Mayor Tom Murphy.

John Heinz first introduced Teresa to Kerry at an Earth Day dinner in Washington in 1990. Kerry was known in town as a loner, having separated from his first wife, Julia Thorne, with whom he had two daughters, two years before coming to the Senate in 1984. The environment, along with women's rights, human rights, children, health care and arts, has long been an area of particular interest to Teresa. The pair met again at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. After seeing each other again at a Washington dinner a few months later, Kerry offered to drive her home. On their way, however, they stopped to walk on the Washington Mall and look at the Vietnam Memorial wall in the moonlight. The wall was no casual curiosity for Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and hero. The couple were married in November 1994 on a Nantucket Island estate where Teresa and Heinz used to spend summer holidays.

With characteristic candour, Heinz Kerry admits she is high maintenance as a wife. In the early days of her new marriage, she would clash with her new stepdaughters as they each fought for John's attentions. "I am a real needy person," she once confessed, attributing it partly to the tragedy of her first husband. (She also lost her father and John Heinz's father within four years of Heinz's death.) She has never made any secret that Kerry and she used to fight quite often also. "You have a lot of strong-willed, strong-minded people trying to reach some combination with each other," David Thorne, the twin brother of Kerry's first wife, once said of the conjoined Kerry-Heinz household.

Strong personalities are something she and John may have in common. But in other ways they are starkly different. While he is a guarded, patrician Yankee, who has had to force himself to get to grips with the horrors he experienced in Vietnam and even, these days, to let the voters into those shadows of life, she is emotionally abundant and outgoing.

The crueller critics of Washington have whispered that the Kerry-Heinz union is one of convenience, both political and financial. It may be true that without her foundation of wealth, the decision that Kerry took last autumn to mortgage their mansion in Boston's Beacon Hill to help to fund his campaign (having foregone federal cash) may have been harder to reach. The prenuptial agreement reportedly makes clear, however, that her millions are never to be plundered to further his political career. To this provision, however, there appears to be one intriguing caveat. In her Washington Post interview, Heinz Kerry intimated that she would willingly unleash her millions in the event that an opponent attempted to smear her husband with character-assassination television adverts. In other words, if George Bush finds himself running against Kerry, he should beware using the tactics of his father, who all but destroyed the candidacy of Michael Dukakis - another "Massachusetts liberal" - with mocking spots of him riding in an army tank. With her own money, she would produce equally demeaning spots about him.

The oft-repeated refrain in the media that Heinz Kerry may be too outspoken prompts her supporters to cry old-fashioned sexism. "I'm surprised," says Laurada Byers, a friend of 30 years. "The press calls her opinionated when she makes a strong, thoughtful statement. If a man said it, they'd call him smart. I think it's a male thing really." Another friend, Wren Wirth, wife of former Senator Tim Wirth, also insisted that no one should underestimate the intellect of Heinz Kerry. "She'd be the most thoughtful and helpful First Lady in history," she said. "Education, environment, ageing, children, women, health, you name, she's done it."

Indeed, on the trail, Heinz Kerry has revealed herself as a thoughtful observer. She bemoans the "Wal-Martisation of America". She is passionate about environmental preservation. "God only made so much of this and that. And we're gobbling it up too fast." And she is an articulate critic of the current White House, lamenting what she sees as Mr Bush's extraordinary "lack of curiosity" and his cynicism. "The cynicism that has come up from this administration - from some members, not all of them, but too many - is the most lethal weapon against democracy that I have ever seen." And she had a quick riposte when a Bush adviser quipped last year that her husband somehow looked French. The president's aides, she tartly suggested, "don't even speak French".

Admittedly, that remark got her into hot water and triggered a new round of speculation that Kerry had a wife too clever by half who would hurt him politically.

But now that the race for the Democrat nomination is under way, is she? The evidence of five wins out of seven states so far for Senator Kerry suggests otherwise. As one Kerry aide put it, if his wife was not "flying" in Middle America, the campaign would know it by now. Her glamour may be a help. Botox or otherwise, Heinz Kerry looks younger than her 65 years. And her style - elegant shawls and fashionable dark glasses pushed up over her hair - gives her an air, for some voters, of Jackie O.

She may also have a hidden advantage. She is a passionate believer in America and expresses that appreciation from the perspective of someone who is not from here but from Europe. Wouldn't it be refreshing to have such a person by the side of the President of the United States? To borrow from her own slight of Senator Santorum, she would sure be a First Lady with attitude.

A life in brief

Born: 5 October 1938, Mozambique

Family: Three sons from marriage to John Heinz: John, Andre, and Christopher; John Kerry's two daughters from a previous marriage, Vanessa, 27, and Alexandra, 30

Education: Bachelor's degree in romance languages and literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1960; Interpreters School of the University of Geneva, 1963

Career: Interpreter, United Nations; chair, the Howard Heinz Endowments and the Heinz Family Philanthropies. Serves on boards of: Environmental Defense, the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, and the Advisory Council for the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Trustee of the Brookings Institution

She says: "I had no ambition... I thought of myself as being married and having children, which is what all the ladies did."

"The graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises." (on modern political campaigns)

They say: "[Teresa is] very sexy, earthy and European." - John Kerry

"Is Teresa too crazy to be First Lady?" - Don Imus, broadcaster

"She's more likely to be the Sharon Osbourne of First Ladies." - Nelson Warfield, Republican political consultant