Kerry's Secret Sauce

Just before democratic presidential contender John Kerry takes the stage at a recent fund-raiser in New York, his wife folds her arms around him and, as they canoodle for just a second, whispers some quick instructions about what he should do with his hands while addressing the crowd. Asked about the coaching later, she doesn't hesitate to repeat what she told him: "I was reminding him that there are some movements he makes that are very inviting and some that are--forceful." Oh? "Inviting: think the Italians," she giggles--warm, alive, fully animated. "And not, well, Hitler. That would be the extreme," she adds, and laughs again, presumably at herself for breaking one of the simpler rules for political wives: never mention your husband and the fuhrer in the same sentence.

There are a lot of laughs on the road with Teresa Heinz Kerry, actually. Though maybe not so many back at Kerry HQ, where, despite protestations to the contrary, not everyone thinks an aspiring First Lady ought to be quite so... spontaneous. Kerry's no-nonsense campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, has confided to friends that she's slightly unnerved by his wife's candor. And when Cahill tells me, "She's great with women and children in small groups," it's hard not to hear that as: we'd lock her in a closet if we could.

Eight weeks after he effectively sewed up the nomination, Kerry remains undefined for many Americans--and Teresa Heinz Kerry, just your basic polyglot philanthropist, is even more of a mystery. Kerry's wife was a registered Republican until last year, muses publicly that she's not reflexively pro-choice and, perhaps most shockingly, when asked a question, generally answers it. Even the wife of the guy running for city council knows to say it's clear her man will win. But Teresa, when asked for her read on how things are going in her husband's race, says: "I can't tell. The only people I see now are Democrats."

On the matter of what Kerry needs to do to win in this closely divided country, she is equally straightforward: "Be himself, be free or be loose, whatever you want to call it. In some settings you see that, and in some you don't." On the topic of her own campaign role, she jokes, "You mean the machinations?"

No, the whole, always watchable Teresa show. Despite its undeniable appeal, Teresa's candor was an issue in the earliest phase of the campaign--when, for instance, she called a pre-nup a must and said she'd maim any husband of hers who fooled around. Her loose talk is perhaps particularly high risk in these wildly polarized times, when anything can become fodder for the culture wars. Unless, of course, the political handlers have it all wrong and should get her out in front as soon as possible. Not only could Teresa charm the faithful, but she could work crucial swing states where her moderate politics might win over voters if they could be convinced that Kerry, who's struggling at the moment, would give his Rockefeller Republican wife a voice in the White House.

At this point, she herself seems to feel it could go either way. Will she come off as the perfect antidote to claims that Kerry has no strong center--or be seen as just one more all-too-complicated, off-message distraction? Her grown son Andre Heinz, who lives in Sweden, warns that his mother is a pretty complicated brew: "You mean, 'Who is Terry Kerry?' " he says, hooting at the idea of shorthanding even her name. And Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira Heinz Kerry is, as she says, "a little of everything." She was born in 1938 in Mozambique, where her father, a Portuguese doctor, took her on rounds in the bush. She went to university in South Africa, marched against apartheid and then, while studying in Switzerland, met her first husband, ketchup heir H. John Heinz III, who later became Senator Heinz, Republican of Pennsylvania. When he died in a plane crash in 1991, she was suddenly left in charge of his family's $500 million charitable trusts. Of her five houses, though, she is most at home on her farm outside Pittsburgh, where she feeds the chickens to relax--and has beheaded a few old roosters in her time, too.

She's a sultry 65, in a distinctly Mediterranean way, pulling her long curls off her face and dropping the occasional French phrase in a soft, breathy voice. Yet she isn't the least bit Continental in her views on sex, marriage and legalized abortion. "I'm more old-fashioned than a lot of women... I don't view abortion as just a nothing. It is stopping the process of life." She's quite a force in her quiet way, a powerhouse who refuses to see what she does trivialized. At a small press conference in Baltimore, she snaps at a reporter who asked her about her "causes." "My work isn't 'causes.' I have work. I don't mean to insult anyone, but mayors don't have causes, they have work."

The candidate, who famously likes a challenge, clearly revels in his wife's untamed spirit. "She's a lot of woman," he says proudly in an interview between campaign events in New York. Does he worry that she communicates a perhaps too-European brand of confidence in herself as "a lot of woman"--at a time when he is being derided as "looking French"? "I understand that," he says with a nod. "It's not a place I want to go in this article, but I understand what you're saying." Of the whole idea that she can be forthcoming to a fault, he says, "People make a great mistake about that. She does believe in the truth about things that some people think are silly," like the fact that she gets Botox injections. "But about the things that make a difference in life, she's very grounded." Chris Heinz, another of her three sons, says she's not immune to concern that her outspokenness could at some point work against her husband. "But she's too smart to cross the line." The real danger for the Kerry campaign in her frank musings, however, may be not in what they reveal but in what they obscure: a serious, tough-minded policy wonk who thinks like the CEO she is--and often like the moderate Republican she was for 30 years until she registered as a Democrat just before Kerry began his campaign. With her husband positioning himself as a centrist, her moderate credentials might just help him with the swing voters he says he'll need to win.

Heinz Kerry has always considered herself a "venture philanthropist," demanding accountability, testing models to find what really works in the way of early-childhood-development programs and funding studies for state governments to help legislatures eliminate waste--so they can put those dollars into programs. Her longtime chief of staff, Jeff Lewis, is still a registered Republican, and his wife heads the Wish List, the Republican version of Emily's List. He tells me later that Heinz Kerry has brought her husband to a new appreciation of market-based solutions to public-policy problems. "They spend a lot of time talking about these issues. Has he learned a lot? Absolutely. Now you have a Democrat who really wants to use a business model to create change."

Asked about her party loyalties, Teresa says, "My late husband understood the marketplace and believed it was incumbent on the government to harness the forces of the market" for the public good. "Historically, the Democratic Party has not really partaken of what's afforded in the marketplace," while Republicans, she says, have gone to the other extreme. "Somewhere between the two lies common sense, and John understands that full well. What really upsets him now is, the deficit's growing too fast." And there you have it: Teresa Heinz Kerry, still real, and finally on message.

Over Margaritas and quesadillas at a Mexican restaurant in Baltimore, Teresa shows how traditional she really is. On the subject of abortion, she says, "My belief--and I maybe am very wrong--is that women generally speaking do not want to have abortions. With the exception of people who are mindless--and there will always be mindless people of both sexes--most women wouldn't want to. So starting from that premise, I'd say it's our duty as a society to help women arrive at the best conclusion." She does, "on the other hand," wish the Roman Catholic Church would reverse itself on birth control. (Later I ask about an interview she gave five years ago, in which she described herself as "not 100 percent pro-choice," and she says she is no longer allowed the luxury of such qualifiers. "Ultimately you're either for choice or you're not, so I am" for abortion rights, she says. "I ask myself if I had a 13-year-old daughter who got drunk one night and got pregnant, what would I do. Christ, I'd go nuts." When I ask her husband if their views are similar, he says, "I do not know the answer to that. We've never--she's never had to vote.")

Teresa played a major role in Iowa and New Hampshire--not least by keeping the candidate's spirits up when his campaign seemed to be headed south. These days she does sit in on some strategy and policy meetings: "Ha! I like to learn, too," she says. But she is not much involved in operational matters and has yet to visit the campaign headquarters--"not because I don't like the people, but they have their work to do and I have my work to do."

On the campaign trail, though, she admits she is still feeling her way. Heinz Kerry frets about her own performance, about the perception that she sometimes looks dialed out at her husband's side. But there is a certain strength in her vulnerability. "I'm old-fashioned and very shy," she says. "People say I look bored onstage, but first of all, I listen, and second, I don't know what--I'm not going to go, 'Hello!' I'm sure sometimes I had an apprehensive look on my face because I was watching other people's faces and sometimes I'd see faces that didn't look friendly." Still, she says, "I refuse to be censored. I should be always delicate and diplomatic so as not to hurt someone's feelings because that's unnecessary, but the moment I start to control my deepest beliefs and my actions, I lose who I am. None of us are perfect, and my imperfections are easy to see, but I don't want to be bottled. I'm not ketchup," she says, and laughs again.