Heinz Kerry may deserve fair hearing

August 10, 2004|By SUSAN REIMER

REPORTERS have dusted off dozens of adjectives to describe Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the Democratic nominee for president.

Some flatter her: candid, open, unique, authentic, smart, frank, direct and quick on her feet.

Some do not: unscripted, loose cannon, flaky, haughty, polarizing, distracting, crass, eccentric, oddball and tart-tongued.

But the word most frequently used to describe her is also one of the most vague: outspoken.

It has been used so often to describe Heinz Kerry that it has been drained of any meaning.

In the context of a political campaign where, presumably, everybody is speaking out, it is a particularly meaningless adjective.

But there is no mistaking what is meant when it is applied to Teresa Heinz Kerry. It is a pejorative, and it is demeaning.

And it is a word almost never used to describe a man.

Heinz Kerry made note of this herself in her speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston:

"My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some have called `opinionated,' is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish.

"My one hope is that, one day soon, women who have all earned the right to their opinions, instead of being labeled `opinionated,' will be called `smart' or `well-informed,' just as men are."

What exactly does "outspoken" mean? Especially when applied to the wife of a political figure?

Let's hope it means that she is speaking out against injustice. Let's hope it means that she is saying what she thinks and believes. Let's hope it means that she is not equivocating or dodging or mouthing platitudes.

Let's hope it means she is not simply gazing adoringly at her husband while he speaks out.

Teresa Heinz Kerry is taking a pounding for being "outspoken."

Political reporters, tired of scripted public appearances and programmed spouses, are gleeful. They are bored, and she is a fun story.

Some Democratic strategists are afraid she is coming off as the bossy, rich wife while others think she is the key to getting out the vote of the educated, single woman - half of whom stayed home on Election Day in 2000.

Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of a powerful woman in the mold of the hated Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Even President Bush has invoked that specter, telling crowds on campaign stops that an important reason to re-elect him is "so that Laura will be first lady for four more years."

And Republican strategist Mary Matalin has boxed the ears of the women who are offended by the treatment of Heinz Kerry, saying that you can't misspeak yourself - as she did when she told a political columnist to "shove it" - and then blame the reaction on the fact that you are a woman.

"That's a bit of a throwback to victimology feminism," Matalin has said.

And she is right. We can't have it both ways.

But maybe we could just have it the way the guys have it: If you say something intemperate or off-color or just plain stupid, as Vice President Dick Cheney did when speaking to Sen. Patrick Leahy, your sex or your marital status is not the reason why.

I think we should stop talking about how Teresa Heinz Kerry talks and listen to what she is saying.

She says that women are "the complexity managers, chaos managers of the world."

"It starts with dirty diapers and it goes on," she says. "Nothing is too harsh, too messy, too painful or too much. A woman just manages."

At a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, she called women the "caretakers of the world," and she said it was long past due that their voices were heard.

"Listen to them," she said.

She was talking about what women have to say. Not how they say it.

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