Out of Africa

By MAUREEN DOWD

The New York Times

July 18, 2004

LOS ANGELES As Republicans on the East Coast fret about Dick Cheney acting bonkers, Democrats on the West Coast fret about Teresa Heinz Kerry acting flaky.

It would be an act of simple courtesy to the world for Mr. Cheney to get off the ticket, since he has already done as much damage as humanly possible in four years.

But the Bushes always stick to their bad but deferential vice-presidential choices. John McCain, Colin Powell or Rudy Giuliani would be way too threatening for W. So now we have to watch the nauseating spectacle of Senator McCain pumping up the potty-mouthed Darth Vader's campaign rallies: "I'm honored to introduce to you the indispensable and very debonair vice president" and "deputy commander in chief."

Just as you never know what the Strangelovian Mr. Cheney will blurt out, you never know what the lovely but strange Mrs. Kerry will blurt out.

With Mr. Kerry at her side, she gave her Middle East policy to Larry King, emphatically noting, "I would never have gone to war this way."

And campaigning in Boston, her compliment for the new ticket was backhanded. "I have to say that John Edwards is very beautiful," she said in her soft accent, adding, "and my husband is very smart." Welcome to the campaign, pretty boy.

After watching Mrs. Kerry in action at last month's Hollywood fund-raiser featuring Barbra Streisand and other glitteries, when she gave her whispery Out-of-Africa autobiographical riff as the candidate waited patiently, entertainment liberals are nervous about how she will handle her unusual spousal star turn in a prime-time speaking slot at the convention.

Even in a place where everyone is constantly reinventing, people are a little stunned at the way Teresa casts herself as a "third worlder" and "daughter of Africa," a wretched-refuse-of-your-teeming-shore sort of immigrant rather than a "White Mischief" émigré, the daughter of a prosperous Portuguese doctor in colonial Mozambique who met John Heinz when they were studying in Switzerland. When Mrs. Kerry presents herself as an African-American or says, "I'm an immigrant, too," and when her son Chris Heinz says he's looking forward to the day when there is a "first-generation American" in the White House, it doesn't always strike the empathetic chord with Hispanic and black audiences that the campaign hopes for.

Some Hollywood contributors want to censor any Teresa tidbits, including any mention of her nickname among some in the Kerry circle "the Stepmoney." Others sanguinely say she's showing some improvement, not talking about her first husband as much as she used to.

Surely, the reason the town known as the Democratic Party's wallet is so focused on the candidate's spouse is that the candidate himself has given it nothing to get excited about. People here are amazed that John Kerry does not even have a soaring stump speech yet, either in terms of the arc or music of the words, or the passion of the ideas. John 2 came up with the theme of two Americas in the primaries, and John 1 still hasn't articulated his vision for one.

Usually, it's President Bush and Mr. Cheney who engender the feeling of, "Just how stupid do they think we are?" But last week, it was the Kerry campaign, which tried to make the claim that Hillary Clinton preferred a silent cameo in a non-prime-time chorus line of female Democratic senators to a top speaking slot.

"Senator Clinton, along with all the other women senators I think nine of them in the Democratic Party," Tad Devine told Judy Woodruff Thursday on CNN, "agreed that they wanted to appear and speak together and ask Senator Mikulski, the senior member, to speak on their behalf."

And I am Marie of Romania.

It's understandable that Mr. Kerry, who is already losing the competition for the spotlight with Teresa, would not want to hand the microphone to Hillary. But if he thought he could really treat Hillary like a junior senator and get away with it, he's as delusional as Paul Wolfowitz.

His campaign squandered the lead-up to the convention trying to justify the inexplicable and inescapable when it wasn't wondering if it could also somehow keep Jimmy Carter out of prime time.

Hillary did what she does best. She brought the leader of the party to heel. And in giving her a prime-time slot, but only to introduce her husband, Mr. Kerry did what he does worst: Try to have it both ways.