Campaign Crawlers

Mrs. Spin

Teresa Heinz Kerry’s feelings come pouring out of the bottle -- even about Max Cleland.

By 6.17.04

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The line on Teresa Heinz Kerry, heiress of the Heinz ketchup fortune and wife of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, is that she's a woman of principle, a hear-me-roar dame who tells it like it is. Well, that's her line, anyway. "At my age I'm entitled to have strong beliefs," the 65-year-old recently told Vogue. "I'd be a ninny if I didn't."

She's not alone in this estimation. Democrats desperate to jumpstart her husband's lackluster presidential campaign have also embraced Heinz Kerry's flinty frankness. Their hope is that she'll spark that part of the electorate cool to Kerry but piqued over the president, a strategy Heinz ketchup users will instinctively recognize as tapping the center.

With that in mind, Democrats have been going out of their way to both keep Heinz Kerry from the spotlight and parade her for the cameras, making sure she keeps both her quiet mystique and her outspoken allure. Senator Ted Kennedy has called her, "A woman of compassion, a woman of purpose, the secret weapon for John Kerry." John Kerry, taking a page out of his wife's book, gushes that "She looks people in the eye; she tells it like it is."

For her part, Heinz Kerry seems to savor the spotlight. So much so, according to a 2003 article in Boston Magazine, that she's actually turning off potential Kerry backers. At a joint husband and wife campaign event, the magazine spotted one attendee who was visibly vexed by Heinz Kerry's obvious affection for the sound of her own voice. "The problem," noted the woman, "is that she just doesn't stop talking." Some Democrats, it seems, don't want any Heinz with their Kerry.

If that discourages Heinz Kerry, she hides it well. Even as she grumbles about right-wing character assassins that allegedly have disturbed her treasured private life, she seems thoroughly to enjoy her role as a primetime cheerleader for her husband. Flanked by a crack communications team, she's even begun to go on the offensive.

The latest in Heinz Kerry's partisan charge is her Tuesday interview with the "CBS Evening News." A registered Republican for years, Heinz Kerry went on the program to explain her defection from the GOP rolls in 2002. On the face of it, the answer seems simple enough: That was the year John Kerry announced his presidential bid. Plainly, the missus wanted to be a team player. Heinz Kerry wants us to think otherwise. Her version? "The Republicans Made Me Do It!"

Heinz Kerry insists she was so incensed by the angry Republican attacks on Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, during his failed 2002 reelection campaign, that she pulled a Benedict Arnold act (as her husband might say), departing for the happy pastures of the Left, where anger is of course unknown. The Associated Press, which should really be getting compensation from the Kerry campaign, loyally reports that, indeed, "The GOP had raised questions about Cleland's patriotism because of his position on legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security."

At this supposed injustice, Heinz Kerry is predictably revolted. "Three limbs and all I could think was, 'What does the Republican party need, a fourth limb to make a person a hero?' And this coming from people who have not served. I was really offended by that." And so on.

Now I don't know how well this victim-of-the-vast-right-wing-conspiracy act goes over with genuine centrists, but it's sure to be a hit with those never-been Republicans who today fancy themselves betrayed by a president they've hated since day one. For what it's worth, though, Heinz Kerry's pained account of the Cleland campaign bears little relation to reality.

True, Cleland's Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, did accuse Cleland of hamstringing President Bush by refusing to vote for a Homeland Security bill unless civil service jobs were retained. (The president had the crazy idea that he should be able to fire those who'd failed at their job.) That Cleland did in fact do so is tidily ignored by Democrats today, just as it was by Cleland in 2002. Rather than defending his voting record, Cleland screamed bloodied patriotism. "I served this country, and I don't have to prove my patriotism to anybody," he wailed.

The only evidence Cleland could produce to support this charge was a single ad, briefly aired by the Chambliss campaign. Featuring split-screened pictures of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and U.S. soldiers, the ad morphed into shots of Max Cleland, questioning his obstruction of homeland security efforts and calling his record in that regard "misleading." About patriotism, there was not a word. Additionally, while Chambliss modified the ad amid a Cleland-led uproar, redacting pictures of bin Laden and Saddam, the Cleland campaign stayed personal, accusing Chambliss of gutting Medicare and running an ad snarling that "The more you learn about Saxby Chambliss, the sicker you get."

Heinz Kerry's claims about attacks on Cleland's patriotism thus strain credulity. Of course, one can hardly blame her for doing all she can to support her husband's campaign. Reportedly a devoted environmentalist, she may even have reasonable grievances against the "Right Wing Smear Machine," which, given that it doesn't run on hot air like the "Left Wing Smear Machine," is not nearly as green-friendly. But if candor and frankness are the values Heinz Kerry brings to the Kerry ticket, perhaps it is not too much to ask that she live up to them. At the very least, if she ought to be able to take as good as she gives. After all, she'd be a ninny if she didn't.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.