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 says, giggling--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 his wife, 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. "I never have [worried about infidelity]. Not for one day, because what I expect of them, they have a right to expect of me," she told Elle magazine. "Maybe I'm into 18-year-olds." 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? Will she ultimately be seen as Teresa the loose cannon or Teresa the warm better half to a husband who can be chilly? When one of her friends, Melinda Blinken, tells her in Los Angeles the other day that the day Kerry married her was the luckiest day of his life, she frowns and says, "We'll see."

So far, her zippy quotes and personal warmth have made her a favorite with reporters, who haven't been this enthralled since W handed out the nicknames during his last campaign. Still, though there is a certain breezy brilliance to her remarks on any number of subjects, she is not remotely linear, and often wanders off, with audience in tow, into anecdotes without any obvious tie-in to Kerry for president. She can seemingly work a rope line forever, even in her Jimmy Choo mules, but occasionally says the wrong thing to the people waiting to meet her. When a man in Chicago tells her earnestly, "I have ADHD, but I just want you to know I'm working my tail off for your husband," she responds, "But you're focused now, right?" To a New York man, who as an Orthodox Jew declines to shake her hand, she blurts, "That's one way not to get diseases."

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. "My mom broke my heart when she turned my pet rooster, who was long in the tooth, into broth," says another son, Chris Heinz. "I thought that was pretty earthy of her."

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." Yet she does defer to her husband, and hesitates to critique his campaign performances for fear of damaging their relationship. "It's hard if you've been married to somebody, not for a long time," she says, "and they make what would otherwise be a normal critique that from somebody else you take as an interesting critique, but from your spouse... it's kind of your home you've threatened."

The candidate, who famously likes a challenge, clearly revels in her 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 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."

In fact, as I watch her day after day, skating up to that line and then back, up and then back, the loops begin to look like figure eights. Is she being "saucy"--to use one of her favorite words--by design, perhaps to keep life on the campaign trail from becoming too onerous? "It is onerous," she groans between bites of a turkey sandwich after an Earth Day event in Franklin Canyon Park outside Los Angeles, where she walked with a group of second and third graders and took some press questions about why she hasn't released her tax returns. ("People don't understand family trusts, but I hate to put what's my kids' out there," she tells me later. "I think one of my kids, maybe two, would not like that, and if it comes to that my husband will have to talk to them.") But yes, she says, she does use humor as a coping strategy. "I can't even quite digest that I'm doing it, or I'd be paralyzed. I try not to think of the size or the import of it, or it would be too much." 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. Or are her Republican roots the one thing she really won't talk about?

For a meeting of the top administrators of her philanthropies, in her Boston town house, the candidate's wife appears with wet hair, no makeup and a cup of strong tea, black. In a lived-in TV room lined with books of her husband's--where Al D'Amato's autobiography is a close neighbor of "Iron John"--she crosses one Chanel boot over her other knee, cowgirl style, and immediately starts firing complicated questions about various projects: What are the dynamics within one outfit's board of directors? Good staff? On a program looking into the hazards of lead in drinking water, she stops the discussion: "The point is, what does a community do" to minimize the impact. She wants to know who is involved in a design competition they're funding to build a Pennsylvania memorial for the 9/11 victims there, and talks fluently about using green space to shore up Pittsburgh's shrinking economic base. When one colleague calls Andy Warhol "the world's most boring artist" in a discussion of funding for a Warhol museum, she responds, "I don't own a Warhol, but he was significant in that he represented his time and that '60s New York craziness, and also the technology of his time. In a sense Warhol became a kind of superrealist of his time, and that he's really real I think appeals to young people: you see, you look, you rebel, you move on." Watching her in action here, I am reminded of an old "Saturday Night Live" skit that showed smiling, innocuous Ronald Reagan morphing into a secret dynamo after hours in the Oval Office, where he negotiates in several languages while waiting for the markets to open in Tokyo.

She 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 fully 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.

Not even Ralph Nader could claim there is no difference between Teresa Heinz Kerry and Laura Bush, yet she is no Hillary Clinton either. She was a stay-at-home mother to her three sons, baking bread and making raspberry jam as well as the trademark scones that Vanessa Kerry, the candidate's daughter, says "are a real problem for me." Though Kerry was formed and defined by the '60s, his wife effectively missed that whole era--or at least the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll part. She was already a mother at the time, "who raised her kids and cooked for her kids every single day," Kerry says, "who took her kids to school and didn't manage money until her father--until her husband died." Asked generally about the home he grew up in, Chris Heinz offers, "My father was definitely the leader of the family."

And 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 on 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.")

But they both say that she is far more traditional than he. "Oh, yeah, totally," she says. "I'm five years older, and John is my sister's age. He's of the generation of the Beatles, and that's a real line of demarcation." Of her sister, who died in an accident at 19, she says, "Even her mores were different; she used to shock the heck out of me, and John is much more her age. Jack [Heinz] was my age. So I married a younger guy--they say women should. Cradle snatcher! I've always liked babies." She declares herself a fan of the lost art of flirtation, and finds overt sexuality in the culture both sad and demeaning. "We should start emphasizing mystery; save it for another day. I came from a more romantic time." During another conversation, she expands on this: "It would be interesting to show young people that sexuality and sensuality are very different, and that being sensuous is more charming, more sustainable, more beautiful." When she was raising her boys, in any case, her husband took care of the sex talks, but she set down three nonnegotiable rules: you treat people with respect, you never drink and drive, and if you do drugs, "tell me, because I want to know what it was like. But if you ever do cocaine, I will kill you."

Even now she mothers everyone, advising them on what vitamins to take and how to eat right. Though she complains that she put on a few pounds during primary season because "in some of our states it's very hard to get California-style healthy food," she has no intention of going on a diet now. "When you're thinking that hard and focusing, you can't not eat!" she says during a van ride from one campaign stop to the next.

In some ways she is still adjusting to her new life as Mrs. Kerry. "I knew my late husband for almost 30 years, and if you've only been married to one guy and only known one guy, that's your life, and it takes a while to break from that mind-set." Though in the past she has alluded to strains in her relationship with Kerry's two grown daughters from his first marriage, she says the campaign has brought them closer together. Still, Teresa smiles: "Girls don't ever want to share their dads." When I ask Vanessa Kerry about her stepmom at a fund-raiser in Boston, where she's in her third year of medical school, she says, "You have to understand, we were pretty well formed as a family before they got together." Later, though, she calls to say how much she appreciates her stepmother. Teresa was always ready to embrace Kerry's family, Vanessa says, recalling one time before her father married Heinz when the Kerrys arrived at her Nantucket home by boat, to surprise Teresa, and Teresa was so happy she jumped into the water and swam out to greet them. Today Vanessa is incensed by the suggestion that her stepmother might need to be "muzzled." "How offensive, to her and all women. She's this warm, caring, spirited woman--spirited in the best sense."

Already, 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 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. When she meets up with Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York at a recent fund-raiser, she confesses that Secret Service protection has her slightly freaked out. At this stage of the race, "it's just not as personal" as it was back in Iowa and New Hampshire, where she really enjoyed long chats with voters. "All politics is personal," Maloney tells her, and gets a hug in return. When Maloney asks her what she thought of the president's speech on Iraq, though, Teresa stiffens. "If this is what America wants, then God bless us all," she answers. "I'm sure he's a good guy deep down, but a little thought" would be appreciated, she says, tapping a finger against her temple.

In Los Angeles last week, 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.