BOSTON – Americans met potential first lady Teresa Heinz Kerry on Tuesday. Whether they liked her or not may not be known for months. But they had to know this: She’d be different from any other American first lady.

Her prime-time speech was designed to fill in the picture of her husband, a warm, wifely testament to a cool and sometimes distant man still unfamiliar to much of the country. But it also offered the first extended look at the woman who shares his most private moments and would accompany him to the White House.

She lauded her husband as a fighter for the environment, education and health care and praised his Vietnam War record, saying he “earned his medals the old-fashioned way, by putting his life on the line for his country.” She said he would defend and unite the country.

But she won cheers and knowing laughs when she spoke about her candor and eagerness to speak out.

“I hope it will come as no surprise that I have something to say,” she said in opening her remarks.

“I have a very personal feeling about how special America is, and I know how precious freedom is,” she said later in a speech that capped the second day of the four-day gathering.

“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.”

The story of Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira Heinz Kerry is one of heartbreak and triumph, hardship and fabulous wealth.

Born in Mozambique to Portuguese parents, she would be the first first lady who was not of northern European descent. She would be only the second first lady born outside the United States (the first was John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa). As a child, she lived in a dictatorship. As a 65-year-old woman, she’s one of the wealthiest and arguably most influential women in the country.

More than that, it’s her style that sets her apart from most other presidential spouses. She can be blunt, even impolitic.

The candor – she has said she used Botox, that she would maim her husband if he cheated on her, that she made Kerry sign a prenuptial agreement – has endeared her to her supporters, particularly women of her own generation, who see a confident, plain-speaking contemporary.

It’s also caused Kerry aides to shrug at their inability to keep her on their carefully written script.

“You know, there are those things that you can do, and those things you can’t,” joked Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry’s campaign manager. “She’s not programmed, and she just says what she thinks about what’s in front of her.”

One emotion she won’t hide is her enduring love for her first husband, the father of their three children.

John Heinz, the dashingly handsome ketchup-fortune heir and Republican senator from Pennsylvania, was killed in a plane crash in 1991. In a 2002 interview, she said wistfully of him, “I love my husband.” She has said she would happily trade the $500 million she inherited from him to have him back.

She chairs the Heinz Family Philanthropies, overseeing its investments and how its money is used.

Four years after Heinz died, she married Kerry. She didn’t formally switch to his Democratic Party until 2003, about the time she added her husband’s name to her own. She said it was for political appearances and that she didn’t care what people called her.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Despite two marriages to senators and a deep interest in public policy, she doesn’t like politics. Back when her first husband was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, she said, “Over my dead body.” A Roman Catholic, she at that time called the prospect of becoming first lady “worse than going to a Carmelite convent.”

At ease talking about such wide-ranging issues as the environment, depression or voter apathy, she’s nonetheless a tentative presence on the political stage who drops her voice so much that it masks her faint Portuguese accent. Despite an obviously affectionate relationship with Kerry – they often can be seen holding hands – she bristles at overt displays of affection once onstage.

Whether she will help or hurt her husband’s campaign is a matter of some debate.

Few analysts think voters make their choice for president based on the vice presidential running mate or the spouse. But Heinz Kerry could help in subtle ways, appealing to working women and older women, and helping to warm up her husband.

“She’s feisty, she’s facile, she’s eloquent,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “She resonates with her audience. And when John Kerry gets up onstage and she is there, he is warmer, more relaxed. There is a real warmth between them, which translates into his ability to connect with his audience.”

If some Americans might balk at a foreign accent, Jeffe added, the recent election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California suggested it wasn’t a problem there.

Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa, agreed that Heinz Kerry can warm up her husband. But he also said her wealth and air of privilege could boost the image of Kerry as patrician and aloof, playing Marie Antoinette to his Louis XIV.

As first lady, she would have to write her own job description for a position that swings back and forth between private partner and public advocate, just as homebody Bess Truman did after Eleanor Roosevelt, an advocate for the poor, and as politically ambitious Hillary Rodham Clinton, a working lawyer, did after grandmotherly Barbara Bush.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.