Hillary Revisited

I am once again facing the dilemma I encountered when Bill Clinton was running for president.

Back then, I couldn’t figure out what to make of Hillary.

Now, I can’t figure out what to make of Teresa.

Ironically, I was moved to tears by Teresa Heinz Kerry’s speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). But later, in spite of myself, I couldn’t help listening to some of the right-wing commentators giving her the short shrift.

She didn’t adore her husband. She was too self-absorbed. She didn’t speak much about the candidate. These were some of the allegations leveled against her.
The last one was clearly a lie. Afterwards, checking the text of her speech, I discovered several paragraphs about Kerry’s policies. Obviously, what was troubling the “family values” coalition was not that she didn’t talk about her husband; they were upset because her tone wasn’t sufficiently groveling.

And therein lies my dilemma. On the one hand, I loved her speech. And I admired the way she looked at 62. I was happy that, for a change, we had an immigrant woman speaking on the national stage, even though she happened to be an immigrant woman with rather an exceptional pedigree.

Which brings me to the flip side of the coin. Albeit Teresa is a well-educated, intelligent, worldly woman who has lived on three different continents and knows five languages. But much of her success and distinction can be attributed to one accidental event in her life: meeting and marrying a ketchup tycoon while studying in Geneva. So how sympathetic can I feel towards this poor rich woman, who has to head all those charities and attend all those balls? For, let’s face it, Teresa’s is not a classic rags-to-riches story. To begin with, she belonged to the privileged class in a land where white people thrived on the backs of blacks.

So, as with Hillary and Bill’s marriage, one can’t help wondering if the Teresa-John alliance is based on power rather than on love. One also wonders how outspoken Teresa would be without her money. And yet, one can’t help admiring her ability to speak her mind.

One thing about Teresa is clear: there is a gender gap in the public’s response to her. Women like her for her soft-spoken, yet strong stance on environment, alternative fuels, civil liberties. Men find her foreignness, her audacity, her directness, disconcerting.

There is clearly an undercurrent of xenophobia at play here. As a female third-world immigrant commentator, I myself have faced it on several occasions.

Yet, I wonder why the conservatives don’t seem to accept Teresa’s foreignness in the same spirit that they seem to celebrate “Governator” Arnold’s unique expatriate background.

This contradiction can be explained only in one way: Republicans hate strong women. In fact, the conservatives have had trouble with every Democratic first lady in recent history. They didn’t like Rosalyn Carter because she was perceived to control Jimmy behind the scenes. They didn’t like Hillary because she was too smart and not pretty enough. They don’t like Teresa because she has opinions.

If there is a role for a Stepford wife, it is definitely in the White House as the American first lady. Program her to love art and literature and fine wine and foreign china, and chances are, no one will know the difference between her and a robot, and everyone will love her. In fact, that is sort of what Jackie Kennedy did, with her pillbox hat, her pretentiously husky voice, her quaint adoration of her husband, however artificial. One wonders why they don’t just design a dummy to stand beside the president, fixing her gaze on him, and clapping at the correct moments.

So, with all my reservations, I have decided to put my weight behind Teresa. She may be a loose canon, but we need more women like her in America. And we need her expatriate sensibility to see the American political theater for what it really is: just a showbiz production made for television. Teresa, with her slight shrug of the shoulder, and a down-turned lip at John Kerry’s mention of her name at the DNC, reminded us that everywhere else in the world, husbands and wives do not have to display their affection in public to win points; that everywhere else in the world, the kind of banal adoration and coy sycophancy that American first ladies are supposed to sport make people want to throw up; that in most parts of the world, a politician’s wife or husband are not looked upon as an idol.

If John Kerry wins this election and becomes president, which I desperately hope he will, it will be nice to watch Teresa treating the first lady’s role with a breezy, down-to-earth casualness. It will be refreshing too to have the first foreign-born presidential wife in history. We have a long way to go before an Indian woman will inhabit the White House, or a colored person will be a serious contender for the presidency, but Teresa might be a humble way to break the mold.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.

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