BOSTON - "How do you solve a problem like Tere-zah?"
All week I've been whistling the tune from "The Sound of Music," mentally substituting the name Teresa for Maria.
"How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you find a word that means Teresa? A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the-wisp! A clown!"
Not that Mrs. Kerry is any of the above - far from it - but finding the right word to describe this unconventional potential first lady has spinmeisters and wordsmiths politely stumped. Democrats' protests to the contrary, she is a bit of a problem for the man who would be president.
It isn't so much the content of her recent "shove it" remark to a reporter, which doubtless millions applauded in vicarious appreciation, but rather what her volatile reaction suggests about Mrs. Kerry's temperament and a clear sense of entitlement that precludes all but acquiescence from the hoi polloi.
Suffice it to say that people with a billion dollars at their fingertips don't hear much from "No-men," while the need for grace under fire rarely comes up.
Mrs. Kerry's now-familiar "shove it" comment followed remarks to the Pennsylvania delegation during which she lamented creeping incivility in public life, noting that "un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits" are infecting politics. As if to demonstrate the point, she told a reporter to "shove it" after he asked her to clarify what she meant by "un-American activity."
An exasperated Mrs. Kerry denied ever saying "un-American," told him to "shove it" and huffed away. It wasn't precisely Cheney-esque, but no one would confuse the ketchup heiress with Laura Bush.
No matter how hard the Kerry camp spins her outburst, regular folk - those so beloved by the two-Americas, two-John ticket - see it as behavior unbecoming a first lady. As matters evolved, Mrs. Kerry's speechwriters came up with a clever way to mute the controversy by introducing a feminist conceit and opening the floor to discussion of the more politically palatable question of equality.
Mrs. Kerry isn't arrogant or abrasive, as some might have inferred. Why, she's a woman of deeply held conviction and a champion of free speech. Voila! Salud! And molto bene, while we're at it.
Addressing the Democratic Convention Tuesday night, Mrs. Kerry gamely hinted at her outburst, inviting a group wink, laughter and cheers: "By now, I hope it will come as no surprise that I have something to say."
Then she burnished the raw image of a bullying rich woman with brush strokes of gilded rhetoric:
"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," she said, "and my only hope is that one day soon, women, who have all earned the right to their opinions, instead of being called opinionated will be called smart and well-informed - just like men."
Hear, hear, though I'm not sure that telling a reporter to "shove it" qualifies as smart and well-informed. Never mind that hoping women can have a public voice is about 30 years late. What's next, bra-burning?
First ladies continue to baffle us as we try to sketch an appropriate image in a world of evolving gender roles. We want someone strong yet feminine, accomplished but not too ambitious, maternal and wifely, but not smothering and subservient. Recent first ladies have run the gamut.
Nancy Reagan was viewed as too doting, gazing like a Labrador at her master, while Hillary Clinton wasn't "wifely" enough, famously displaying her Rodham charm by declaring that she wasn't the stay-at-home, cookie-baking sort.
The two Mrs. Bushes earn consistently high ratings among both Democrats and Republicans. The senior Mrs. Bush is everybody's no-nonsense mom - strong, kind and humorous. As for Laura, what's not to like? An attractive, feminine librarian, she's an utterly uncontroversial Tollhouse wife and mother who enjoys reading to kids and publicly defers to her husband without seeming obsequious.
Then comes Teresa, a native of Mozambique talking about un-American traits, an extraordinarily wealthy woman who, whatever charms she may possess, clearly isn't used to playing by the usual rules of civility toward lesser mortals. The rich really are different than the rest of us, but the smart and well-informed ones let the little guys believe otherwise.
At least until their husbands get elected to the White House.