Thursday, July 29, 2004

Teresa: Now Officially a Liability

TERESA: NOW OFFICIALLY A LIABILITY.Heir Rantby Andrew Sullivan Only at TNR OnlinePost date: 07.28.04

What were they thinking?
I suppose as a strategy, putting Teresa Heinz Kerry front and center on the second night of the DNC convention was an attempt to preempt criticism. The Kerry campaign did not want to look as if it was hiding THK, or embarrassed by her, or afraid of her. So she spoke. What did she say? Here's some of the text of her speech. I'll tackle just a few passages of its self-congratulatory pablum.

Start with this piece of grandstanding:
Y a todos los Hispanos, y los Latinos; a tous les Franco Americains, a tutti Italiani; a toda a familia Portugesa e Brazileria; and to all the continental Africans living in this country, and to all the new Americans in our country: I invite you to join in our conversation, and together with us work towards the noblest purpose of all: a free, good, and democratic society.

Now there are many languages spoken in the United States. French isn't one of the more common ones. Neither is Portuguese. THK was saying nothing here, it seems to me, except, "I can speak lots of languages." Good for her. But the point? That her opponents don't care to appeal to new immigrants? Or that new immigrants have a special claim on the Democrats? As one myself, I'd like to think so, but I'd also like not to be set apart. The opening of her speech was simply an exercise in exhibitionist cosmopolitanism. She's not the Pope; and her audience is American, not French. I don't get it. Neither, I suspect, did many others.

Then there was this familiar feminist rallying cry:
I have a very personal feeling about how special America is, and I know how precious freedom is. It is a sacred gift, sanctified by those who have lived it and those who have died defending it. 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. And my only hope is that, one day soon, women--who have all earned their right to their opinions--instead of being called opinionated, will be called smart and well-informed, just like men. Thank you. Merci.

It is hard not to second the notion that intelligent women with views should not be patronized with the word "opinionated." It would be equally refreshing not to have eloquent African Americans described as "articulate," as George Mitchell did when describing Barack Obama. But coming from a woman who married her wealth, this kind of victimology is a little, er, rich. It is equally preposterous to say that all women in American public life are viewed this way. When has Condi Rice been called "opinionated"? Or Barbara Mikulski? Or Kay Bailey Hutchison? Yes, this point undoubtedly resonated with many women who have to deal with insufferable condescension and dismissal in their daily lives. But it is hard to think of the billionaire heiress as their peer. She is called "opinionated" because she is, and because she is an unelected private citizen who believes that her marriage entitles her to lecture the rest of us. Why else, after all, is she at the convention? She is there as a spouse. Period. In that sense, she is not advancing feminism. She is helping to hold it back. And then, for good measure, she addresses the applauding crowd and says, "Merci." Why? Are they French? Or is she just off on some Francophile digression? Who knows? Whatever the explanation, she comes across as ever-so-slightly nutty.

But the weirdness has just begun. How about this one: "And John is a fighter. He earned his medals the old-fashioned way, by putting his life on the line for his country." Is THK saying that some people have earned war medals without deserving them? Is she criticizing the system of granting military honors today as somehow too liberal? The phrase "the old-fashioned way" just hangs there--with no apparent point and no purpose at all. Did she not have an editor? Or can she get away with anything?

Then we get the following:
And that is why, as president, my husband will not fear disagreement or dissent. He believes that our voices--yours and mine--must be the voices of freedom. And if we do not speak, neither does she.
To whom does the word "she" refer to? Freedom? Are we speaking French again and attributing some kind of feminine gender to a noun? Or are we making another pompous feminist reference? I have no idea. But I doubt a single one of her listeners understood what she was trying to say.

The world, however, is a dangerous place. And THK is not unaware of this. Here are her priorities:
With John Kerry as president, global climate change and other threats to the health of our planet will begin to be reversed. With John Kerry as president, the alliances that bind the community of nations and that truly make our country and the world a safer place, will be strengthened once more.

So if we just ratify the Kyoto Treaty and be nice to Jacques Chirac, our global problems will be over? Whom is she kidding? One can only hope it isn't her husband. Then her peroration: "Together we will lift everyone up. We have to. It's possible. And you know what? It's the American thing to do." This is a theme of THK. Her side is the American side. The others are "un-American." She said this the other day and then, when a reporter asked her what she meant by the term "un-American," she denied she said it (which was untrue) and then told the reporter to "shove it." But she keeps returning to the theme because she really believes that Bush Republicanism is somehow un-American. Now just imagine if Laura Bush described the Democrats as "un-American." Do you think it would be ignored by the media, as THK's outburst Tuesday night was?

Do her words matter? Probably not. But I have a couple of serious worries. THK is the classic hyper-rich liberal female. Like many absurdly wealthy people, she is not used to actually engaging people as equals. Few speak back to her. She is also unused to real debate. She has never run for office, and although her philanthropic record is stellar and deeply admirable, her political ideas are half-baked and run completely counter to the centrist message this convention has been so shrewdly sending out. So how did she get away with such a spot? I fear that she got what she wanted merely because she insisted; and that her insistence is enough to get her anything she wants. That is not a good omen for a future Kerry administration. We already endured one unelected condescender as co-president for eight years. But mercifully, Hillary Rodham Clinton is now a legitimate politician, elected in her own right, as all democratic leaders ought to be. THK is another matter.

It's hard not to like her. I'd love to have dinner with her. I'm sure she's a wonderful spouse, great mother, and peerless philanthropist. But she is now officially a liability for Kerry's campaign. And the campaign let it happen. If Kerry's advisers want to win, they'd better tell her to quiet down and take a backseat to the man who is actually running for office. And if she won't, someone, somewhere, is going to have to tell her to shove it.

Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at TNR.