“Women-grown-ups and little girls-have a deep longing for mother figures,” said Phyllis Chesler, feminist and author of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman . “Some women may, on some unconscious level, be thinking of this when they vote. So even a successful career woman may be looking at Laura Bush and thinking you know, she reminds me of my mom, and I’m going to feel guilty if I don’t vote for her.”
Chances are, though, that Teresa Heinz Kerry, 65, of Pennsylvania, second wife to the Democratic nominee for President, who is himself her second husband-a romantic mid-life merger made by two public figures in mid-career-doesn’t remind Ms. Chesler, or almost anybody except Chris Heinz, of their mom.
But Ms. Heinz Kerry has become the first national female figure since Hillary Rodham Clinton to be a dividing point in American politics, a celebrity who effortlessly polarizes and allows men and women to declare themselves helplessly, reflexively, almost completely on the basis of their response to her.
Last Thursday, the final evening of the Republican convention, about 30 career women-hard-working, ambitious liberal types-gathered at a Chelsea bar to watch George Bush finish off the Republicans’ week-long siege of New York. And to observe, critically, his leading ladies.
“You hos!” yelled a tiny, wire-rimmed woman when the Bush twins appeared on TV.
“You’re a traitor to our gender!” another woman shouted when Laura Bush showed up.
The women, successful, politically attuned twenty- and thirtysomethings, were leaning against the bar, intent on catching Mr. Bush in bald-faced lies, gleefully mouthing off when he did. They cursed and flipped the bird, releasing four years of pent-up anger and frustration at not only the anti-feminist Bush Presidency but, quite obviously, the Bush women themselves. The convention’s neat, throwback images-the wise matron Barbara Bush, the Queen Consort Laura Bush, and the First Twits, Jenna and Barbara-represented an ideal most New York women don’t recognize in themselves.
The feelings aired that Thursday evening at the bar-and the impulsive, loud manner in which they were expressed-in fact recalled the devil-may-care Teresa Heinz Kerry. It’s easy, pleasurable, to imagine sexy Ms. Heinz Kerry screaming at the TV, too. Except, of course, she would do it on camera, to boot. Call her “crazy” (whatever that means), but to many women, Teresa is rather gloriously unhinged.
“There’s the feeling that you never know what’s gonna happen with Teresa,” Alice Bradley, a Park Slope writer and mother, told me. “Like at any moment a catfight could break out and there she’d be, pulling Maria Shriver’s hair.”
Too bad she wasn’t around last week to take out the Twits. Ms. Heinz Kerry, we now know, was hospitalized shortly after the Republicans pulled out of town with mysterious stomach pains. She joined another Democratic icon in distress, Bill Clinton, now recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, who also went to the hospital hours after chants of “Four more years!” filled the Garden. Bad diet, recklessness, age-forget all that. Immediately, our minds found a morbid poetry in Mr. Clinton’s illness: That big old heart, the one that felt so much of our pain, almost gave out after watching four straight nights of smug white men claiming they know what it means to be an American. Similarly, perhaps Ms. Heinz Kerry suffered not from a routine tummy ache, but from witnessing, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger imply that her husband’s sense of realism is a symptom of being a girlie-man.
And girlie-men, the Republicans made clear during the convention, have no business running the country. Neither do women who let on that they have more on their minds than their husbands’ election. Republican First Ladies simper for their husbands; their First Daughters titteringly confess to having no ambition. In their America, the men are men and the women are women; hence, a country that needs the guidance of a President who believes marriage is only for straight people with no confusion about gender roles.
The Republicans deify ex-bodybuilders who idolize John Wayne, and a President who proudly owns up to swaggering and doesn’t waste time prettying up his speeches. (Talking is for wimps, after all.)
“What you see in Bush is an embodiment of a fairly persistent belief in American pop culture that truth tellers are people who are not particularly resourceful in their use of language,” said Maria DiBattista, Ph.D., an English professor at Princeton and the author of the book Fast-Talking Dames . “There’s a real showdown mentality now, and you can see this in Schwarzenegger too, where primacy is placed on drop dead one-liners that kill off honest discussion.”
John Kerry for now is, maybe distressingly for voters, languishing between gender stereotypes. He’s not tough enough and not sappy enough. He’s a ponderer, an agonizer, a man who believes in oratory-often to his own detriment. A man who is burdened by what he witnessed in Vietnam, and the fact that his second wife seems to forget that her first husband died in a plane crash in 1991.
But Mr. Kerry can be said to cherish the ladies. He took pains to point out in his D.N.C. speech that he worked for women’s rights as a Massachusetts D.A. His daughters clearly love him; they’ve waxed poetic about his support of their very unfeminine passion for ice hockey and how he taught them to argue at the dinner table.
“It speaks well of John Kerry that he married Teresa-it means he’s not intimidated by other people’s intelligence,” said 28-year-old Anna Wahrman, the copy chief at Stuff magazine. “As opposed to a certain lying imbecile who needs his wife to be seen and not heard.”
Mr. Kerry and Ms. Heinz Kerry resemble something out of Henry James-a complicated tangle of lives on multiple continents that won’t easily be adapted for the cameras. Instead of doing what most men do when they marry for the second time-marry someone young, malleable and financially needy-Mr. Kerry married a woman who was older, uncontrollable and rich. This, of course, makes him suspect among our middle-aged dads, our heartland lawn-mower men, our Promise Keepers and Donald Trump wannabes. Why on earth did he marry that woman? Could it be, men across America may wonder, that Mr. Kerry is our First Trophy Husband?
As Manhattan writer, Mei Chin, told me, Ms. Heinz Kerry is “a bit Zsa Zsa-you could see her slapping a cop. She’s a real old-fashioned broad with lots of money and wit, and she’s not afraid to flaunt it.”
The Democrats have long recognized Teresa’s habit of flaunting her history and experience as some sort of liability, and lately, it seems as though she’s disappeared from the public eye. But that doesn’t mean that she’s being kept under wraps. When, a few days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that Ms. Heinz Kerry said the Christian Right “appeals to the dark corners of the human soul” in a 1994 speech, the Kerry campaign proudly defended her. Last week, Ms. Heinz Kerry loyally laid low with her husband in Nantucket, waiting out the convention, and since then she’s been in Iowa and her home state of Pennsylvania, stumping for her husband.
If some time between now and Nov. 2 Ms. Heinz Kerry is sidelined for more than stomach trouble, Mr. Kerry has another helpmeet by his side warming him up for voters: John Edwards, the boy wonder from North Carolina who hides his ruthless lawyer persona behind toothy smiles and tender Southern cadences, supplying the populist touch that Mr. Kerry can’t or won’t. He also supplies the adoring deference, gazing up at Mr. Kerry, that Ms. Heinz Kerry can’t or won’t. Mr. Edwards’ D.N.C. speech did what many thought his wife would do, explaining Mr. Kerry’s stand on kitchen-table issues and taking pains to invoke Mr. Kerry’s name. Ms. Heinz Kerry, on the other hand, seemed to throw her husband in as an afterthought.
Mr. Edwards was meant to inject the campaign with the charisma of a Clinton; instead, he injected it with the soft-focused glow of a Laura Bush. But the Democrats have charisma with Ms. Heinz Kerry-and all the pitfalls that entails. She, too, has the potential to bring her party down, because of her inability to rein in her impulses. And she too, is reviled by the right-Fox News, for one, spoofed her queenly airs at the D.N.C. by likening her to Evita Peron, and some recent polls have Laura Bush beating her in a landslide-as well as by some Democrats who are afraid that she might be too foreign, too smart, too much fun for Middle America.
How is it that, in the midst of a manly-man onslaught from the right, the Democrats managed to find themselves, again, with a potential First Lady full of so many contradictions? Shouldn’t we be used to this yet-that powerful women are going to be complicated from here on in?
Of course, New York’s single women-a demographic that is said to be the largest block of swing voters in this election-love such contradictions. It’s not surprising that New York women, who grew up with feminism as a birthright but still get a chill from the leading ladies at the podium, would find their hearts warmed by an environmentally conscious billionaire philanthropist with a penchant for mouthing off.
Yet they are savvy culture consumers who believe, first of all, that the media needs to get over its irrational obsession with potential First Ladies. They cop to the conservatives’ claim that Teresa’s outspokenness probably has a lot to do with being an aristocrat. Women chide Teresa for claiming her Mozambique-to-Pittsburgh journey qualifies her for African-American status. They are well aware she is just lately a Democrat.
Cynical as they may be, it gives them a little joy to think that there is, if only for the duration of her husband’s political campaign, someone around who maybe-just maybe-could help take back the White House from the isolationist philistines who are holding it hostage.
“Teresa seems to have a genuine curiosity about the world,” said Deborah Orr, a 35-year-old music publicist. “That’s in complete contrast to the sort of suspicion with which the current administration views so many other nations. Or New Yorkers who don’t for a minute believe that the war in Iraq, or domestic anti-terrorism money distributed pork-barrel style, is really and truly all for the sake of our safety.”
For those who feel hopelessly trapped by this administration, Ms. Heinz Kerry seems like the only one ballsy enough to take things in a whole new direction. A Hillary wouldn’t be enough. Many women expressed admiration for Mrs. Clinton but qualified it: They felt somehow put off by her stridency, her lack of warmth, and felt a little apologetic about not being able to relate fully to someone who, in theory, they should hold in high regard. They also felt sorry for Mrs. Clinton-for the fact that she has had to compromise so much to get to where she is, that she’s had to muffle her feminism and highlight her hair. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Ms. Heinz Kerry, who claims she has no political aspirations of her own, can afford to shake things up in a way that most female leaders have not and can not.
“She’s out there looking like herself, talking about what interests her, talking about what has been an interesting and unpredictable life,” said Democratic political consultant Jen Bluestein. “And you think, ‘Well, thank you!’ It’s like watching TV and flipping through 65 channels of banal made-for-TV movies and finally finding The African Queen on.”
Speaking of Katharine Hepburn: They’re not making movie stars like they used to, and they’re not making rock stars like they used to. Teresa’s inimitable stately-but-psycho vibe fills both voids at once. The terms “dame” and “broad” were floated frequently by these women, and they were used as terms of endearment. Women seem nostalgic for stars who had guts, style and sex appeal, wisecracks spilling out of their mouths like ticker tape-weathering as we are the storm of plastic blonde skanks and ditzes like Paris, Jessica and Britney.
“When women speak, especially in politics, they have to disarm, to charm,” Ms. DiBattista said. “We’re missing the element of directness. And so I think that there’s a secret need and real hunger for women who are direct.”
We used to make icons of messy female rock stars who mouthed off and who were sexually intimidating-think Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry. These days, we have Courtney Love leaving a trail of bodily fluids at every photo shoot and court date she shows up to, and Liz Phair intent on impressing little girls who wear wife beaters and neckties. Ms. Heinz Kerry is a real old-school celebrity, and it may be that women could do with a little inspiration when it comes to talking tough and walking tall.
“Teresa’s taking palpable pleasure in the campaign process,” said Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and the author of Necessary Dreams , in which she explored women’s conflicted relationship to ambition. “She’s clearly enjoying the recognition and having influence, which are feelings that women are taught to hide, and so it’s refreshing to see a woman not pretend to be modest.”
Ms. Heinz Kerry’s largely uncensored persona can be interpreted, then, as one big “shove it” to sacred notions of womanhood-enacting a secret revenge fantasy of women confronted by magazines fixated on weddings and pregnancies, their hysterical headlines castigating Kate Hudson for her inability to drop her baby weight and Mary-Kate for not being able to pack some on. Ms. Heinz Kerry stands in opposition to all this: a 65-year-old woman who has popped out all the kids she’s ever going to have and who doesn’t care what you think about her hair, her Botox use, her accent, her loopy locutions-and who may not love him as much as the one who came before him.
“We all go through the day trying to do right by our jobs and do right by our homes and our partners and family, and one of the things, like it or not, that we’re all aware of is thinking, ‘Do I look sloppy, do I look tidy, do I look nice?'” Ms. Bluestein said. “People find it compelling to recognize in someone a similar struggle to prioritize and be true to your own aesthetic and own goals, and to refuse to make it a priority to look like everyone else.”
Betty Houchin Winfield, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri who is an expert on First Ladies, said that Ms. Heinz Kerry is “feminist but feminine-and that’s an interesting combination. She gave more of a feminist speech at the convention than I had ever heard anyone give. I was blown away when I heard it-but her voice is such that you’re not threatened. Whereas if Hillary gave that speech, she would have been stoned.”
Elaine Lafferty, editor in chief of Ms. magazine agreed. “First of all,” said Ms. Lafferty, “[Hillary’s] not asked to speak at the convention. Then some ruckus goes on and she is asked to speak. This is a sitting Senator from a large state, and her job is still to introduce her husband. And she agrees to do it. I don’t think that’s insignificant.”
Ms. Heinz Kerry may serve as some small reprieve from all the Stepford Wivery that is exacted from female politicians and the female relations of politicians-and from the women of our current administration specifically. Laura Bush took pains in her R.N.C. speech to invoke the living room and dining room, making it clear that her influence went no further than that. Mrs. Bush could only mention women’s rights in the context of an Afghan Olympian finally being able to wear pants to compete in the Games. Other Bushies, such as Karen Hughes and Condoleezza Rice, possess a tenacity and ambition that would be inspiring but for the fact that you like to imagine they’re whispering “Not my will, Bush, but thine, be done” in their evening prayers.
They’re traitors, essentially, and so must be killed.
Or so Paige Arthur, a New Yorker who’s working on a Ph.D. in French intellectual history, likes to imagine. She admits she “sometimes likes to daydream about Teresa stabbing Laura Bush in the stomach to find out that she’s a robot and Teresa is the last human woman in town, and maybe the real Laura Bush is shackled somewhere in a creepy house, just waiting to be liberated.”
But are Americans ready for our First Ladies to be liberated ladies, considering that they function as sort of an official Mom? Might we, in fact, be better served by a Ms. Heinz Kerry type, who believes small children should learn early on the value of being presentable? Who jerks thumbs out of toddlers’ mouths for photo ops and who tells gays and lesbian voters that if her husband’s elected, they’ll have a surrogate mother in the White House? Who could talk to you about renewable energy sources, or chat knowledgeably with foreign dignitaries in foreign languages?
Americans, by and large, are squeamish teenagers who would probably feel safer with a mom who didn’t run around engaging in repartee with 60 Minutes anchors about how she’s “cheeky, sexy, whatever.” Cheeky, sexy-O.K. It’s the “whatever” that remains a little scary for the kids at home.