BOSTON – Faced with a persistent journalist who just wanted a bit of clarification, Teresa Heinz Kerry (search) offered a blunt comment: "Shove it."
John Kerry's wife was speaking to Pennsylvania delegates Sunday night and spoke about the need for a new tone in America.
"We need to turn back some of the creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics." She criticized the tenor of modern political campaigns without being specific.
Heinz Kerry repeatedly denied using the phrase. "You said something I didn't say," she told the journalist. "Now shove it."
In an interview with FOX News, McNickle said he first asked Heinz Kerry what she meant by "un-American activities" — a phrase that draws on language from the 1950s when the nation was gripped by anti-communist feelings.
"I was trying to elicit from her an example of these 'un-American traits' and she quibbled with me and the word 'activity.' Perhaps this brought back some problems with some verbiage from years past. Then I asked her about 'un-American [traits]', and she denied even [saying] 'un-American,'" McNickle said.
McNickle acknowledged his newspaper has an editorial page that is "very conservative with a slight libertarian leaning" but he said that should be no reason for a hostile reaction from Heinz Kerry.
"Why would she react that way to someone seeking clarification of a statement? Would she have reacted the same way if it had been a reporter for NBC or for FOX?" he asked.
Heinz Kerry has not apologized. Her husband said he's not sorry.
"I think my wife speaks her mind appropriately," Kerry told reporters Monday.
Some convention delegates were not impressed.
"I think it could hurt her," said Lexie Carter, 52, of Memphis, Tenn. "I'm not sure how it will play but I'm coming down on the side of — 'it's OK, but let's cool it. Keep a level head, girl.'"
"It's the kind of thing that could hurt her stature as a potential first lady," Carter said.
Joan Nagel, a Pennsylvania delegate, called the comment "completely appropriate."
"I saw it on television," she said. "It looked like she was being hassled."
Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked in several Republican administrations, said most voters won't have any problem with Heinz Kerry's outburst. It might even help the potential first lady shed a reputation as a cool, regal woman of wealth, he said.
"We've been waiting for the real Teresa, and it strikes me that we're starting to get her," Hess said.
Privately, strategists close to the Kerry campaign agreed with Hess' assessment but worried that the outburst might be a sign that Heinz Kerry might have trouble staying on message during the campaign.
After showing unusual discipline throughout the spring, she made aides wince by calling Kerry running mate John Edwards (search) beautiful and her husband smart — a contrast that played into the hands of GOP critics of the Democratic ticket.
With her comments, Heinz Kerry joined the company of blunt-speaking political spouses.
Barbara Bush set the standard in 1984 when she called Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro a $4 million "rhymes with rich" during the campaign to re-elect President Reagan and Mrs. Bush been referring to "the ceremonial role" of the first lady.
Political spouses can cause political problems.
First lady Nancy Reagan turned to an astrologer to help her husband run the White House, former Reagan chief of staff Donald T. Regan wrote in a book.
Laura Bush distanced herself from her husband's anti-abortion views shortly after his election. Tipper Gore took on the music industry, a Democratic fund-raising base, before her husband became vice president. Lynn Cheney has not been afraid to speak out during her husband's vice presidential tenure.
"But it's a short list," Hess said. "Like little children, political wives were supposed to be seen but not heard for much of American history."
Not anymore. Not with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton jumping to the defense of Heinz Kerry.
"A lot of Americans are going to say, 'Good for you, you go, girl,'" the New York senator said, "and that's certainly how I feel about it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.