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What Teresa Heinz found and what she lost

Pittsburgh's forthright 'Saint Teresa' could play compelling, wildcard role in husband Kerry's presidential hopes

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

By Mark Leibovich, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Teresa Heinz is getting up a full head of rage while her husband, Sen. John Kerry, fidgets.

Sen . John Kerry and Teresa Heinz at a gala benefit for the Pittsburgh Opera last year. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

They are in the living room of their Georgetown home, where Heinz has lived ever since her late first husband, John Heinz, came to Washington in 1971 as a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. In the front entrance, the first things a visitor sees are two framed photos of Teresa Heinz cuddled with tall, smiling men with big heads of brown hair: In one is John Kerry, in the other John Heinz.

She still calls John Heinz "my husband" and doesn't always correct herself -- "my late husband" -- even when Kerry is around. She still wears the blue sapphire engagement ring that Heinz gave her.

But John Heinz's enduring presence in Teresa's life is best revealed when someone slights his memory. Which, at least indirectly, is why she and Kerry are now in mid-bicker.

"That guy does not deserve diplomacy," says Heinz. She is referring to Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who offended her in 1994 during his campaign for John Heinz's old Senate seat. She won't elaborate on what Santorum said to earn her enmity, only that she won't speak to him again.

"He's changed," Kerry mumbles, trying to keep this from becoming an on-the-record spectacle. The Massachusetts Democrat tries to add that he gets along with his colleague, but Heinz interrupts. "Sweetie, I know," Kerry says, talking over her, "I'm just saying ..."

He exhales a long, loud sigh.

Just a few minutes earlier, Kerry, 58, was saying how much he admires his wife's candor. And Heinz, 63, was saying that while she can be opinionated, she can also be tactful. But sometimes she can't help herself, especially when the matter involves John Heinz, who was killed in a plane crash in 1991.

Every time Heinz raises her voice, Kerry tries to play down his wife's agitation, which only inflames her more. A Yankee stoic, he gently suggests that his wife and Santorum get together.

"No, I don't want to get together with him, John," she snaps. "I don't have to do certain things."


"OK? I don't have to be that politic."

Heinz speaks in a high, breathy voice and sharply accented English -- she grew up in colonial Mozambique, where her first language was Portuguese.

In 1995 she married Kerry and today, they are perhaps America's most compelling political couple not named Clinton or Bush.

Kerry officially says he is undecided on whether he'll run for president in 2004. But he's acting like a candidate -- raising money, careening to Jefferson-Jackson dinners, attending picnics in Iowa. Friends and colleagues say the once-desperate edges of Kerry's ambition have been smoothed by age, experience, stature and the settled domestic life that had eluded him for much of his Senate career.

But there remains a base line reserve to Kerry that can leave him difficult to embrace. He is dismissive on matters self-analytic and has a politician's bent for evading dicey matters or framing them in tidy certainties.

Part of Heinz's charm is that she has no patience for this. When Kerry is asked about the nightmares that haunted his sleep for years after he returned from Vietnam, he shrugs. "I don't think I've had a nightmare in a long time," he says. But then Heinz begins to mimic Kerry having a Vietnam nightmare.

"Down! Down, down!" she yells, patting her hands down on her auburn hair.

"I haven't gotten slapped yet," she says. "But there were times when I thought I might get throttled."

Kerry quivers his right foot and steers the discussion to the counseling programs he has supported for Vietnam veterans. Asked if he has been in therapy himself, he non-answers. "It doesn't bother me anymore, I just go back to sleep."

Heinz presses him. "Not therapy for the dreams, therapy for the angst," she says, and looks quizzically at him, awaiting an answer. Kerry shakes his head "No." This is not your father's political couple, though you wonder, at this moment, if Kerry wishes it were.

And yet, despite a nasty case of laryngitis, Kerry responds to every question he is asked. It's a balance, he says, between keeping some things private and helping people get to know him.

"I keep thinking of [Winslow] Homer watercolors," Heinz exclaims, jumping in. She spins a notion of how politics is driven by fast decisions, black-and-white perceptions and the "immediacy of pictures." In fact, she says, political characters comprise the "nuance of a Homer watercolor," better animated in a palette of grays and beiges than in black and white.

Kerry checks his watch and dashes off to a Senate vote. He kisses his wife on the forehead as he leaves, and she calls after him to take his lozenges.

Path to glory

Until recently, Kerry has been largely confined to a position of Washington otherness -- the "other" senator from Massachusetts, the "other" Senator Kerry (no second "e"). His highest-profile triumphs have come on complex, grueling investigations of the Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI) and whether there were still POWs in Vietnam. Over his 18-year Senate career, Kerry has become an increasingly savvy legislator and a go-to Democrat in such timely areas as the environment and international terrorism -- the subject of a book he wrote in 1997.

Kerry is classically drawn as How a Senator Should Look: He is 6 feet 4 and slim with a helmet of brownish-silver hair, high and knobby cheekbones and a surgically enhanced chin -- not cosmetic surgery, contrary to speculation. (The operation, says Kerry press secretary David Wade, was to correct "a malocclusion," a bad bite that caused a clicking in his jaw.)

The second of four children, John Forbes Kerry was born in Colorado, the son of an Army pilot who later worked for the Foreign Service across Europe. At St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, Kerry's classmates recall a driven student who was thrilled -- even obsessed -- with the idea that he shared initials with his political idol, JFK. He graduated from Yale and volunteered for the Navy during Vietnam. For his service, he was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.

Being the junior senator to Ted Kennedy and, before that, the lieutenant governor to Michael Dukakis is not a resume that will thrill swing voters. But Kerry's aides duly tout his mainstream bona fides: his membership in centrist Democratic groups, his love of hunting, the four years he spent as a prosecutor, his close friendship with Sen. John McCain and his defeat of popular Republican Gov. William Weld in the 1996 Senate race.

But Kerry's ace credential is Vietnam. His combat heroism could spring him from liberal pigeonholes, just as his dissent has long endeared him to a generation of antiwar activists -- the kind who still vote in Democratic primaries.

Kerry commanded a Navy "Swift Boat" that patrolled the Mekong delta. His crew recalls Kerry as brainy and extremely aggressive, "a good leader and a bit of a hard-charger," says Del Sandusky from Elgin, Ill.

Two years after Kerry returned to the United States, he appeared before Sen. William Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" Kerry said in the speech's enduring sound bite. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" After Kerry spoke, committee member Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., expressed his hope that the young man would return to the Senate one day as a member.

On a recent afternoon, Kerry was in his Russell Building office, sitting on a wing chair with his legs crossed next to a fireplace. The office is decorated with a watercolor painted by Ted Kennedy and framed $5 and $1 bills that Eugene McCarthy contributed to his first campaign. Kerry's computer screen is filled with a smiling photo of ... John Kerry.

Asked about the perception that he desperately wants to be president, Kerry shakes his big head. If he wanted to be president so badly, Kerry wonders testily, then why is he the only Democrat in his Senate class who has not run?

Lost Love

"If you interviewed 100 senators, you could get most of them to admit to wanting to be president," says longtime Senate staffer Cliff Shannon, who includes in that group his boss for 15 years, H. John Heinz III.

John Heinz was born in Pittsburgh and raised in San Francisco, the only child of parents who divorced when he was 3. He graduated from Yale and, between his first and second years at Harvard Business School, went to work at a bank in Geneva, with an eye to one day working for the food empire that his great-grandfather founded in 1869. There he met the daughter of a Portuguese doctor, Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira, who was attending the Interpreters School of the University of Geneva. (She is fluent in five languages.) They were married in 1966, lived in Pittsburgh and moved to Washington when Heinz was elected to Congress in 1971.

The late Sen. John Heinz III kisses his wife at a Republican function in 1972. She still calls him "the love of my life." (Post-Gazette photo)

John Heinz would become the most popular politician in Pennsylvania, a centrist Republican who won six elections for the House and Senate between 1971 and 1988. His aides had begun holding events around the country to stoke his national profile. He never mentioned his presidential aspirations to Teresa. Others did, though, and her stock response was, "Over my dead body."

A presidential campaign would only disrupt her desire for a semi-normal family life. She was more engaged in issues than many Senate spouses, but she viewed her role primarily as a wife and mother. By most accounts, John and Teresa Heinz had a devoted marriage, although it was not without difficulty.

Charming, driven and impatient, John Heinz had a knack for applying the pointed questioning style that he honed in Senate hearing rooms to his home life. He would grill his wife about the food she was cooking, his three boys about school, Social Security, whatever came up at the dinner table. Teresa would jump in. "I would say, 'Jack, this is your family. We're just stupid. We're just normal. We don't know.' "

John and Teresa Heinz worked hard at their marriage and grew closer over time. They were married 25 years. "It's a beautiful time of a marriage," she says. "The things that used to rattle you and make you upset all of a sudden become endearing. And you never knew it could happen." They were starting to think about grandchildren.

"And then, whoa, it's gone," she whispers. "That was so unkind. That was so unkind."

One second, she was a Senate wife, downstairs in her Georgetown home, in the den where the kids used to play. She got a phone call and learned that John Heinz's plane had collided with a helicopter over a Lower Merion, Pa., schoolyard.

Suddenly, she was a political widow, principal heir to a half-billion-dollar fortune, and head of the billion-dollar Howard Heinz endowments.

She was awash in logistics, details and boxes full of minutiae whose previous master was now interred in the Heinz family mausoleum in Pittsburgh. Republicans in Pennsylvania were urging her to take over John Heinz's vacated Senate seat. She almost did, but it was too soon, and there was too much else to do.

She was zooming through her life in a manic fog. A year later, when the logistics thinned, the magnitude of her loss came pouring in. Heinz was fighting with her boys, particularly the youngest, Christopher. He was the closest of the three to his father. "If you wish that I was dead instead of your father, that's quite normal and don't feel guilty about it," Teresa Heinz recalled saying to him. "But just don't make me pay the price for it." (Christopher Heinz, now 29, declined to comment.)

She saw a psychiatrist who prescribed Prozac, one pill a day. It eased the paralysis, she says, not the sadness. She began devoting much of her time, energy and money to issues that John Heinz held dear in the Senate. In a sense, Teresa says, keeping John Heinz's issues alive was a way to keep the senator alive.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy calls her "Saint Teresa" for her charitable work, much of which was concentrated in that city. She has become one of the nation's foremost philanthropists, able to spin unscripted policy yarns on the environment, women's health issues, pension planning and other causes the Heinz foundation has taken on.

Teresa Heinz knew, however, that she did not want to be alone. "I think because she had such a wonderful relationship with Jack, it allowed her to fall in love again," says her friend Wren Wirth, the wife of former senator Tim Wirth, D-Colo. Teresa first met John Kerry at a Washington Earth Day event in 1990. They were introduced by John Heinz, who served with Kerry on the Senate Banking Committee. They were friends in the way that everyone in the Senate is a good friend, but they were more cordial than close.

Kerry had been unhappily single for most of his time in Washington. His election to the Senate in 1984 came two years after his separation from his wife, Julia Thorne. They were separated six years and divorced in 1988.

His separation and divorce were "awful in every regard," Kerry says. He had two young daughters, Alex and Vanessa. He spent hours on the phone helping them with homework. He spent every weekend in Boston. "Trying to make it all work, trying to be a senator, trying to be a father, trying to hold those pieces together, I found challenging."

Kerry had been a prodigious but reluctant dater, linked in gossip columns to many women, often much younger. He hated the scrutiny. "If you have one date, and you go to a restaurant, and somebody sees you, boom, you're going out," Kerry says. He became a "Senate hermit."

Then came Teresa Heinz. "He was a lonely person. She was a lonely person, too," says Bruce Droste, a close friend.

Kerry renewed his acquaintance with Heinz at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. They met again at a Washington dinner party a few months later and, after a long conversation, Kerry invited her on a walk to the Mall that ended at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Kerry and Heinz began dating late in 1993 and announced their engagement in November 1994. They lived together four months and married on May 26, 1995, on the Nantucket estate where Teresa and John Heinz used to spend their summers.

Party of three

There was family friction. It centered particularly on Teresa Heinz and the Kerry daughters. Little dust-ups -- Alex or Vanessa calling after Teresa's bedtime, showing up unannounced when there was company -- would escalate. The macro issue was that all parties expected to be Kerry's first priority. He would always drop everything for Alex and Vanessa who were 18 and 21 at the time of the marriage. But if Heinz expected something from Kerry and didn't get it, she would become wounded.

"I'm a real needy person," Heinz says, "and that's because of loss. ... It's like when you say to a child you're going to do something and you don't, they're very threatened. For me, it's a loss.

"It's hard," she says, referring to her relationships with Kerry's daughters. "When they want their father, they want their father, same as I want their father when I want their father, because I don't have much."

Family sources say that Kerry often felt uncomfortable in the middle of these disputes. All parties point out that such tensions are normal in such family mergers. "We're not trying to play Ozzie and Harriet or something," John Kerry says.

Vanessa and Alex have grown close to Heinz's sons, Chris, Andre and John Heinz IV. "Strong characters sometimes, you know, adjust at different rates, and in different ways," Kerry says. "I think the family and the kids are very affectionate with one another."

Teresa Heinz is flanked by sons Christopher, left, and Andre before the 1996 opening of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District, Downtown. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette photo)

Yes, they have all "grown" as a family, Heinz says, but she won't abide explanations that are too clean. "Like everything else, you go forward two steps, you go backward one," she says.

Heinz was reluctant to embrace parts of her new husband's life. Her identity stayed rooted in the Heinz family, foundation and company. She never considered taking the name "Kerry," never cast a vote for John Kerry (she remains registered, as a Republican, in Pittsburgh) and still spends much of her time in the four homes she shared with John Heinz, in Washington, Idaho, Nantucket and Pittsburgh. They are all adorned with multiple photos of John Heinz, whom she still calls "the love of my life," and their telephone numbers contain the digits "57," the traditional number of Heinz food varieties. (Heinz and Kerry own a mansion together on Boston's Beacon Hill.)

"The cliche is that time heals everything," says David Garth, the media consultant who was a friend of John Heinz and remains close to Teresa. "But that doesn't seem entirely true in this case."

Kerry is gracious about John Heinz's prominence in his marriage. He lets out a quick, exasperated laugh when he is asked about it, and he stammers out his answer. "I just feel, just sort of comfortable," he says. "It's OK, it's not a ..." He stops mid-sentence and talks about how he loves the Heinz boys, how they should be comfortable in the home they grew up in. "I'm not trying to come in and replace that memory," he says.

Teresa Heinz says Kerry knew what he was getting when he married her. "I am sentimental, loyal," she says. "I love my husband" -- she means John Heinz -- "I am in love with my husband, and I have three kids."

Kerry has plenty for himself, she says. He has his daughters, his mother, three siblings, dozens of cousins. "When I go to Boston, he has family and friends and everything," she says. "I have to make everything up. He's got all his classmates he went to school with, they're all in America. I have no classmates. I have no cousins."

The Kerry-Heinz marriage has invited crude assumptions from the outset. The most cynical is that he needs the fortune she inherited from John Heinz to be president. To that, Kerry says he won't spend any Heinz money on a campaign, and Heinz says she won't make it available -- unless, in her words, an opponent engages in "character assassination" against her or Kerry.

The questions about Teresa Heinz's fortune obscures a recurring observation among people close to Kerry: that she has been fundamentally good for him. "My dad's basal rate is much slower, calmer and more peaceful than it used to be," says Vanessa Kerry, a Harvard Medical School student who uses terms like "basal rate" when talking about a person's constitution. She ascribes much of this to her stepmother, whom she, while acknowledging past strains, calls "an extraordinary woman."

Friends of Kerry say that Heinz has kept him on edge, a necessary function as he can be prone to a kind of mental cruise control. "John needs a kind of tension to be at his best," says Thomas Vallely, a Vietnam veteran and close Kerry friend. "Part of him needs the high-wire act."

The context of Vallely's observation is Kerry in politics and, to a lesser extent, warfare. But it could just as easily apply to his life with Heinz.

With Heinz, Kerry chose a woman who challenges him, who nurtures his less developed sides. "She's warm, a little soulful and pretty high-maintenance," a former Kerry aide says. "And you don't have to be around Teresa much to know that she defines a lot of who she is by what she's lost."

Once every two or three months, Heinz will retreat to Idaho or Arizona where she likes to "collapse for a week," by herself. Kerry, who faces no serious opposition for re-election this year, has assumed a vigorous fund-raising regimen: His $3.2 million war chest exceeds that of any other Democratic presidential aspirant. On average, Heinz says, she and Kerry are together two or three nights a week, and they set aside one weekend every month to "do nothing" together.

Kerry has come to look to Heinz for what one friend calls the "emotional catharsis" for Vietnam. She provides a place to soften the memories that had calcified beneath his public skin. A few weeks ago, Kerry asked Heinz to come with him to see the Vietnam War film "We Were Soldiers." She said no at first, but agreed to go after he said it would mean a lot to him.

They went to a theater on Boston's Tremont Street early on a Sunday evening. Heinz cried as she hadn't in a long time, especially during the scenes where children and wives learned that their fathers and husbands had died. She sobbed loud and hard, while Kerry sat upright next to her, crying quietly.

Over two long interviews, Teresa Heinz is by turns effusive and harsh, warm and slightly bitter, solemn and melodramatic. And she is always, unfailingly, smart, original and provocative. She hits on the following things: the excessive drinking of a Massachusetts politician, the miscarriage suffered by one senator's wife, her own miscarriage, and the Boston TV reporter who is an "unhappy, lonely man." She speaks of how her oldest son, John IV, started "hating her" two years ago, when his daughter was born. (He declined to comment.) She also talks about how shy she is.

You wonder how Teresa Heinz's "shyness" would play in the blitz of a presidential campaign, and how the relative peace that Kerry and Heinz have achieved would be sustained in such a pressured environment.

Kerry says his wife is a huge campaign asset, someone who "raises things up a little bit," who brings freshness to the dialogue.

Some aides worry that her bluntness could become a problem, though they won't say it for attribution.

Heinz says as much. She has no intention of subverting her hard-won wisdom to the on-message orthodoxies of a campaign even though she knows "that makes a lot of people uncomfortable."

Teresa's turn

The bright face of John Heinz smiled down onto a cozy gathering of his family and friends. He filled a big video screen at the Heinz Awards at the Folger Theatre, the signature event of the Heinz family foundation's year.

Teresa Heinz

Teresa Heinz, who spends hours each year on the ceremony's smallest details, presents the five $250,000 awards and is the night's featured speaker. She gulps water and tries not to cry. She speaks in a small, mumbly voice. In a 2 1/2-hour ceremony, there is no mention of Kerry, who is sitting slightly hunched in the second row, separate from the rest of the family.

When Teresa Heinz is asked if such an elaborate tribute to her first husband might be difficult for the second, she shrugs, as if the question has never crossed her mind. "No, he's a tall guy, he's gotten enough attention," she says of Kerry. "Just when you love one child, you love your next child. You might have a predilection for one because you get along better, but you'd give your life for any of them."

The scene is a watercolor that distills the awkward novelty of how three Washington lives have aligned. Teresa Heinz walks away from the stage as the program concludes and Kerry slaps triceps several feet away.

She squeezes hands, gives long hugs, and soaks in the assurance that the legacy of John Heinz abides in the room, and in the world, just as John Kerry is declared "our next president" by a guest waiting to shake his hand.

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