We Love “X” Factors

Ever since Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich had a ringside seat for a juicy little spat between Sen. John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz (she hadn’t taken Kerry as her surname at that point), the political world and the media covering it haven’t quite figured out what to make of the outspoken, intelligent and totally unpredictable spouse of today’s Democratic frontrunner.

Leibovich’s June 2002 profile, which recorded Heinz dissing Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as Kerry fidgeted, was intended to flesh out the life and thinking of the “other” Massachusetts senator, then considering a run for the White House. But the story has been largely remembered, and quoted, for its details about Teresa Heinz: That she took Prozac; that she often referred to John Heinz (who died in 1991) as “my husband,” even after her marriage to Kerry in 1995; and that some Kerry aides already were worrying how to “handle” Teresa if Kerry sought the nomination.

One and a half years after the Post article, the media and the political establishment obviously haven’t resolved their befuddlement. David M. Halbfinger, writing in The New York Times today, describes Heinz Kerry as “offbeat if not a little odd,” a factor that “could complicate the Kerry campaign’s efforts to make the Kerrys appealing to voters.” The Times’ headline writer calls her “an X Factor.”

“[S]ome Democrats express concerns that Ms. Heinz Kerry’s forthrightness and spontaneity could come back to haunt her husband as her remarks are put under the microscope of a general-election campaign,” writes Halbfinger.

To which Heinz Kerry responds: “If I get hit, so I get hit.”

As Campaign Desk noted back on February 2, the press (and the political establishment) seems as intent on pigeonholing Heinz Kerry as it once was on stereotyping Judith Dean. Frankly, we wish they’d stop trying.

One would think that the last thing any reporter (or any voter) should want is a totally scripted run-up to November. Heinz Kerry, with her broad interests and refreshing candor, may have some unorthodox ideas to add to the campaign — and if some of them end up worth Page 1, then who can complain?

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.