The Blog

John and Teresa Do Dr. Phil

And how very different they are from the Bushes.

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 2004 • By DAVID SKINNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FOLLOWING UP on his interview with the Bushes, Dr. Phil today rolled the film on his interview with John Kerry and Teresa Heinz. One could hear the congestion in the senator's voice as he was apparently suffering from a cold during the taping. Dr. Phil was again accompanied by his wife Robin, who contributed questions as the foursome talked of co-parenting, blended families, divorce, and the candidate's childhood.

The most surprising moment came early on, though it had been teased in the opening: Teresa Heinz, not for the first time in public, made reference to miscarriages she suffered during her marriage to Senator John Heinz. "I call them pinkies," she said, meaning the fetuses that did not make it to term.*

Unsettling as that topic was, Dr. Phil and his wife politely kept the conversation moving. Unlike his mentor Oprah, Dr. Phil is not a master of the spontaneous moment. It is a failing also of the edited, taped set-up, in comparison with the live interviews Oprah did with Bush and Al Gore in 2000, that one had almost no sense of exactly how long the discomfort lingered.

The discussion remained weird and unreal for much of the interview. Which is not, incidentally, to suggest the Bushes were models of candor. But one did get the impression from last week's show that, if you were new acquaintances, conversation over coffee on a Sunday afternoon with the Bushes would probably be very much like the one they had with Phil and wife. But with Kerry speaking from behind the fog of whatever croup he'd picked up, Dr. Phil and his wife working very hard to be polite, and Teresa, as usual, playing a solo without hearing a contrary note from anyone else, it was hard to get much of a read on the conversation.

Also, it's Phil's style to, even as he talks tough, employ socially approved euphemisms. He asked Kerry how he kept his daughters from feeling like their lives were changing when their parents had split up and their father was in Washington. Kerry offered that he helped them with their homework over the phone. Instantly Dr. Phil beefed up the answer with some consultant-speak. "You put it [being a father] on 'project status.'"

The Democratic couple talked of the strain of the campaign on their family. Teresa, in her inimitable way, said, "It's not a life. It's a tunnel. There's an end." By which she apparently meant Election Day, though when Dr. Phil tried grilling her on what it would mean for such an outspoken woman to become first lady, she denied that it was a big deal. She knew "the process," and she was "philosophical" about it. She realized, she said, "there are people who don't like me because I am married to my husband."

Usually Dr. Phil makes his guest out to look and sound worse than they really are. Here the dynamic was just the opposite. Conflicts turned out to be, under close scrutiny, not conflicts at all. Kerry insisted, "I bent over backwards to never force my life on my kids," but said he was deeply gratified that his younger daughter was taking time off from medical school to be a part of the campaign. He always put his children first, Kerry said, but he had to credit his first wife Julia Thorne with making up for many of "deficits" as a parent."

Coming back from a commercial break, Dr. Phil quoted Kerry as saying his unique upbringing as the son of a diplomat who spent part of his childhood abroad and went through seven different schools in nine years, was "the source of his strength." But then during the interview, Kerry himself says he never wanted such a rootless existence for his own daughters.

Dr. Phil consistently lapped up Kerry's pat, nice-sounding answers, no matter how shallow they were. At one point he even said Kerry could have written a chapter in one Phil's own books on parenting. Not that it really mattered. Kerry's not running for father-in-chief. But it could have been interesting if Dr. Phil's questioning had allowed us to see more of the man who would be president.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

* Correction appended, 10/7/2004:The article originally reported that Teresa Heinz referred to her miscarriages as "piggies," not "pinkies." The audio on the interview was unclear, but the partial transcript on Dr. Phil's website says "pinkies," and the Washington Post concurs. Of course, whatever name she uses for her miscarried children isn't so revealing as the fact that she has a name for these would-have-been offspring which she uses to discuss them in public.