August 2, 2004

Running for First Lady.

Tim Russert ended yesterday's "Meet the Press" with a discussion of the race for First Lady. This is a significant subject, like it or not, that I brought up in two posts yesterday--here and here. Here's the MTP dialogue:
MR. RUSSERT: Teresa Heinz Kerry made a very open appeal for support for women voters at the convention. Let's watch. ... Did it work?

MS. IFILL: You know, it's interesting. That's a perfect Rorschach. I was in the hall that night, and the response seemed muted. There were a lot of empty seats. You could kind of only hear her, because she speaks so softly. And I thought, jeez, that wasn't much of a speech. I called my friends at home who watched it on television, and they were blown away.

MR. RUSSERT: Ron Brownstein, let me bring you in here. The Newsweek poll has Kerry-Edwards up amongst women by 16 points, 53-37. ... And Bush ahead amongst men by 5 points. Big gender gap.

MR. BROWNSTEIN: ... Most of the women who would respond to [Heinz Kerry's speech] ... are already in the Democratic camp. Her job was more to do what the daughters did on Thursday night, I think, to humanize John Kerry and to show the side of him that you don't see when the spotlights are on. She did almost none of that. And I think for that reason, the speech was a wasted opportunity....

MR. RUSSERT: All right, Harwood, break the tie.

MR. HARWOOD: Tim, Laura Bush is a spectacularly good red-state spouse. She's smart. But she's also a bit subdued and supportive of her husband. Teresa Heinz is a very good blue-state spouse. She speaks not only to women but also to that larger immigrant story. There's a lot of immigrant voters in this race. She's urbane, she's sophisticated, she's strong. She's going to be an asset for him.
Here's what I think.

Laura Bush is the First Lady from central casting. She perfectly plays the role of an idealized First Lady (not the feisty, outspoken variety of First Lady but the Pat Nixon/Jackie Kennedy type). I assume she is a smart and good person who is not interested in projecting her personality into the public sphere and has chosen to walk carefully through the various scripted performances required of her.

Teresa Heinz Kerry is going to be a problem---not because she's "opinionated," the characteristic she pointedly defended in her convention speech, and not merely because she is interested in being the feisty, outspoken kind of First Lady, projecting her personality into the public sphere. She is going to be a problem because of that personality-projecting combined with a lack of real interest in helping her husband. I have no way to know what she really thinks of him, but time and again, I get the impression that she can barely tolerate him and doesn't even particularly care about supporting him. She too is walking through her public appearances, but she's not willing to play the First Lady role. She surely has a right to express herself, and she used her speech to inform us of this fact, though we all know it. But her honest self-expression seems unlikely to help her husband. This is not because we want to squelch female expression and demand a demure First Lady. It is because her honest expressions do not inspire support for the candidate.

Compare Heinz Kerry to other recent feisty First Ladies: Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. These women had strong personalities (in fact they seemed far more energetic and political than Heinz Kerry), but they also obviously adored their husbands and staunchly agreed with their politics. We could see their love and it rubbed off on us--or at least it rubbed off on those not so opposed to the man as to be immune to such influence. Heinz Kerry shows none of this adoration. In fact, she seems to show a lack of interest in him. Maybe she doesn't even support his politics. (She is the widow of a Republican Senator.) She has an air of world-weariness (perhaps even mourning for the dead Republican). Here is her current husband, a dour-faced man with a droning voice, who is trying his damnedest to look like an optimist, and his own wife will not deign to gaze at him and smile. I'm all for female independence and expression, but why doesn't she want to help him?

UPDATE: Kate O'Beirne, the Washington Editor of the National Review, adds to my speculation that Heinz Kerry does not agree with her husband's politics:
At a Washington party in 2001, Teresa Heinz (then) greeted me enthusiastically with the charming pronouncement, "I agree with everything you say on TV. I'm a Republican and you're my favorite." Her husband, John Kerry, stood uncomfortably at her side, which he was no doubt used to doing by then.

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