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The Straight Talk Heiress

Teresa Heinz Kerry talks about growing up in Africa, tells delegates they can call her "Mama T," and mentions her husband barely at all.

4:55 PM, Jul 28, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Boston

IT'S BEEN a busy 15 hours for Teresa Heinz Kerry. For starters, she addressed the national convention last night at the Fleet Center. The reviews of her speech have been mixed, at best. William Saletan, of Slate, criticized her for talking about her late husband, Jack Heinz. Andrew Sullivan decried The Teresa Problem, called her talk "condescending, unnecessary, and pointless," and went so far as to say that her speech "should not have been given."

But anyone who's covered Teresa knows that last night was a pretty savvy and disciplined performance, by her standards. Not only did she use prepared remarks--she actually spent part of her speech talking about John Kerry.

This morning, Teresa is back to normal. Her first stop is the Hispanic Caucus, at the downtown Sheraton. She comes onstage to an enthusiastic ovation and starts speaking, as she always does, quite extemporaneously.

With her soft voice and Audrey-Hepburn accent caressing her words, she begins by noting that she's "7/8ths Latin." Yet for some reason, she says, "recently, a columnist chided me that I wasn't really an immigrant."

Teresa takes some offense from this notion, and talks about how difficult her life was when she came to America, leaving behind her beloved Mozambique. The notion that someone can't appreciate the immigrant experience just because they happen to be a billionaire is "tommyrot."

She then goes on to explain how she was recently thinking about Cuban-Americans and why they tend to vote Republican. It turns out that she identifies with them, and understands what they must feel, since it hurt her deeply when Mozambique fell to the Marxists. "I still feel that way about my country," she says.

She asks if there are any Brazilians in the audience. One woman stands up and cheers. She and Teresa share a few words in Portuguese. Then Teresa mentions her late husband and their three children and one grandchild, and talks about how important family is. After 11 minutes, she wraps up, having made not a single reference to John Kerry.

TERESA is then whisked across the hallway to a ballroom where she addresses a combined audience of the African-American and Veterans Caucuses. Naturally, she starts off by talking about equal pay for women, before segueing into the importance of early-childhood intervention to keep kids in school.

Unlike most political speakers, Teresa almost never repeats herself. She doesn't have a stump speech--or, for that matter, any set speeches. The one subject she's guilty of recycling is her childhood, and so the Veterans and African-Americans are treated to the story of how she was born and raised in Africa and how her father used to take her into the bush on weekends. It's always a little disappointing when she tells her "growing up African" story--it's the only time a Teresa speech feels like a performance and not simply the broadcasting of her interior monologue.

But she's never stuck there for long. Sure enough, less than a minute after she begins discoursing on the joys of the African bush, she moves on to a more interesting topic: 15th century Portuguese poetry. "In the 15th century, when the Portuguese were making stops in Africa on the way to India," she coos, the African people gave inspiration to "the most famous epic poet Luís de Camoes, who wrote The Lusiads." After a brief quotation from The Lusiads, Teresa tells the crowd how she marched against apartheid as a young girl, but never told her mother about it.

Even as a lass, she knew that the fight against apartheid was important, and she promises that, "In John and John Edwards and Elizabeth and in me, you will have strong, soft, persuasive stands, with you all the way." It's her first mention of Kerry since last night.

Not wanting to dwell on the Democratic presidential candidate, Teresa moves on, but gets distracted when Max Cleland comes into the room and is wheeled up onstage. She stops in the middle of her remarks and winks to the crowd, "I have to give him a kiss." And she does. No other woman running for first lady could get away with being as impossibly sweet and flirty as Teresa is.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, Teresa's next stop is at the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender Caucus, where the woman introducing her asks the assemblage, "Did she not look really hot last night?" The audience responds with an enthusiastic and husky "Yeah!" They're still cheering when Teresa gets up to the microphone. Caught a little off her guard, she looks down and giggles.