Jewish World Review July 30, 2004 / 12 Menachem-Av, 5764

Collin Levey

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Putting a lid on the loose lips of Teresa Heinz Kerry | Teresa Heinz Kerry took the podium at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night to tell the American people how proud she is to be part of the Democratic tradition. She needn't have bothered: We predict with some confidence that more voters were charmed by her stormy "shove it" to a journalist than by her mysterious musings on the Peace Corps, apartheid and the rings of Saturn.

As everyone knows by now, Heinz Kerry's earlier, unscripted remark, which led the convention news this week, happened when an opinion editor from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review named Colin McNickle asked the Mozambique-born heiress to clarify what she meant by a reference to "un-American traits."

Following a talk on returning civility to politics, a steamed Heinz Kerry was shown elbowing her way back through the crowd to give the reporter a piece of her mind.

The unscripted remark has a long and storied history in American politics and no shortage of those have been made at the expense of the press. George Bush famously called the New York Times' Adam Clymer a "major league a — hole" in an aside to Dick Cheney in 2000. Ronald Reagan was once overheard in an off-color remark about Washington reporters' maternal canines. (Asked about Reagan's remark, White House spokesman Larry Speakes reported the president had said, "it's sunny and you're rich").

For the most part, the salty banter is part of the unanticipated fun of the political seasons — the media enjoy the surprise tidbits and the reported remarks rarely do any real harm to their authors. Back in March, John Kerry's campaign even tried to turn an off-hand remark that Republicans are "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen" into a clever and deliberate political maneuver.

The spin is usually unnecessary: Voters are rarely perturbed by politician's outbursts. In the case of "shove it," John Kerry was unapologetic, saying that his wife "speaks her mind appropriately." Heinz Kerry's spokeswoman issued a statement referring to the newspaper in question as a "right-wing rag." (The New York Times' public editor may have outed his own newspaper as "liberal," Ann Coulter may have been dumped by USA Today, but look out for that conservative juggernaut in the form of the Pittsburgh Tribune.)

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In her official speech, Heinz Kerry declared that, "By now, I hope it will come as no surprise that I have something to say." She went on to imply that any focus on her "opinionated" nature was somehow a patriarchal dismissal of women who speak out. Never mind that right-winger McNickle's question remains unanswered: What or who exactly was Heinz Kerry referring to with the McCarthyite slur "un-American"?

Oh well. Even right-wing commentators seemed unthreatened by, and even mildly approving, of her spirited dig against her presumed right-wing assailant. Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson confessed to finding Teresa Unplugged a lot more appealing than the solemn and windy official personage who appeared on the convention stage. GOPers seem to enjoy a sharp exchange of views now and then.

The favor isn't returned. In fact, in the months leading up to the election season, the massive power of the "right-wing" media has become a top talking point for Democrats. Howard Dean, while he still seemed a viable presidential candidate, talked about regulating fun-loving and conservative Fox News. The Democratic fund-raising group recently appealed to the Federal Trade Commission to ban the network's "fair and balanced" tagline. There's even a movie devoted to assailing Rupert Murdoch and his network as somehow more nefarious than entertaining.

Heinz Kerry seems to be struggling with the same realization that Hillary Clinton has finally accepted: That not everyone shares her self-appreciation as the embodiment of all virtue and right-thinkingness on every issue under the sun. The Heinz heiress, though, is a special case, since until last year she was a Republican. More to the point, she was a Republican in the stereotyped image favored by Democrats (i.e., the GOP as the party of the overprivileged rich) rather than a Republican who fit in well with what the party has increasingly become since the 1960s — namely, a movement representing the Fox-watching, conventionally conservative, taxpaying middle class.

Official word this week has been that the Democratic convention would be a mature affair, with a minimum of breast-beating and a premium of attention paid to the dozen or so of these moderate, Republican-leaning voters who might actually be watching. Keeping a lid on Dean, Al Gore and other screamers is reasonable enough: Overheated rhetoric could hurt the party's appeal to undecideds who voted for Bush last time.

Less obvious is what Democrats fear from Heinz Kerry's loose lips. That is, unless it's some casual remark that might give wings to the under-reported story of the campaign. Of all the icebergs the Kerry campaign has narrowly missed this year, one of the most inexplicable is the media's lack of interest in how Heinz Kerry's inherited money propped up candidate Kerry's once-faltering career and brought him to the brink of the U.S. presidency.

JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.

07/08/04: Presidential contest is shaping up as a battle of professional archetypes
06/25/04: Could Nader help the Dems?
06/17/04: Odd man out: Al Gore's journey into irrelevance
06/10/04: A chance to settle down and see where we are

© 2004, Collin Levey