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First Ladies matter.


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Myrna Blyth

No, we don’t vote for First Lady. But according to a USA Today/PBS survey, 54 percent of Americans think the candidate’s spouse is very or somewhat important in choosing whom to vote for in a presidential contest. And they are absolutely right.

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Besides being so influential on the president and the presidency (think of Nancy, think of Hillary) a First Lady can be an irresistible distraction for the media (think of Nancy, think of Hillary).

One of Laura Bush’s most endearing qualities, I believe, is her ability not to make news. And that isn’t easy. Nowadays when you are in the public eye, it takes near genius not to be chewed over a couple of times a week on the cable news channels as well as Page Six and The View.

How does Mrs. Bush, who is both intelligent and shrewd, handle it all so deftly? First of all, she doesn’t seem to ever have felt the need to compete for attention with her husband, her mother-in-law, or anyone else. On a PBS documentary about First Ladies aired earlier this week, she said she does discuss issues with her husband but she doesn’t tell us what she thinks, and that’s just fine with most Americans. Her ability to keep her counsel to herself with such steadfast grace is, I think, a large part of the reason she is so liked and respected by the public.

And that’s why the thought of Teresa Heinz Kerry (a.k.a. the Portuguese Firecracker) as First Lady can be so darn unnerving. Mrs. Kerry not only has lots of opinions on everything from the environment to the war to how to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis (with gin-soaked raisins), she also wants everyone to listen to her and respect what she says.

In her “enough about him, let’s talk about me” convention speech Teresa declared, “My only hope is that one day soon, women–who have all earned the right to their opinions–instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart and well informed, just like men.” With that much-quoted remark she was playing, of course, to those few perpetually disgruntled 60s-era feminists still among us–many of whom, by the way, are part of the media.

The only problem is that, throughout the campaign, Teresa has not been “smart and well informed”–she has been a dopey near-disaster. From telling a reporter asking a tough question to “shove it,” to winning the New York Times’s Marie Antoinette Award (for suggesting that Caribbean children who were victims of a hurricane “go naked”), to last week’s diss of Mrs. Bush, it has been gaffe after gaffe after gaffe. And the mouthy “Mama T” at the present time is still being kept tightly under control. Just imagine what she would be like in the White House as the Boss’s Wife–and what fun the press would have recording her daily doings.

On the same PBS First Ladies documentary, Mrs. Kerry answered her interviewer’s questions with that sulkily defensive tone she tends to employ when she doesn’t like what she’s being asked. She really seems to hate it whenever a journalist wonders whether, were she to become First Lady, running the Heinz Foundation and handing out all that money wouldn’t be a wee bit of a conflict of interest. “That’s…a Washington question,” she sulked. Obviously, when you have a billion-dollar fortune, five houses, a private jet, an income of perhaps $50 million dollars a year, and millions more to give away, you feel you just don’t have to explain your actions no matter how inappropriate they might be.

On the Today show the other morning, John Kerry defended his wife by declaring that he loved her outspokenness. But during the last debate, when asked about the strong women in his life, he couldn’t come up with anything nice to say about her. The camera caught Teresa looking pretty sulky about that. He did finally, concede he enjoyed the style of life she provided. On Today, he said, “I think Americans love her because she’s authentic. She speaks her mind. She tells the truth.”

Sorry, John, not so. In that USA Today/PBS survey, 76 percent of Americans gave Mrs. Bush a favorable rating and only 16 percent had an unfavorable view, while 40 percent of the public rated Mrs. Kerry unfavorably and only 38 percent had a favorable view.

Even in my Manhattan West Side neighborhood where practically everyone is liberal, Teresa just can’t seem to hack it. The other day, sitting around in the beauty salon, talking about politics, nobody agreed with me on most issues. I expected that. But what I didn’t expect was that everyone there, to a woman, would say, “I just can’t stand Mrs. Kerry.”

Senator Kerry keeps claiming that he has a plan for the economy and a plan for health care and a plan to fight terrorism. But I’d like to know–and this is very important–does he have a plan to handle his wife? Because, trust me, he’ll really, really need one.

Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.



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