Candidates' spouses revisit traditional role

Campaign: Judy Dean's reluctant entry into her husband's campaign puts a new focus on the place of politicians' mates.

Election 2004

Wives Of The Candidates

January 23, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For Judith Steinberg Dean, the soft-spoken physician wife of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, Thursday is her day for house calls.

And yesterday, the wife and mother who has been remarkably and insistently absent from her husband's campaign, was called for an emergency - to help resuscitate the once-robust candidacy of her husband just days before the New Hampshire primary.

In a televised interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's Primetime Thursday, Dean, seated with his arm around his wife, tried his best to soften the hot-headed image of him that has emerged, sealed by his much-mocked concession speech in Iowa on Monday.

The couple held hands and smiled affectionately at one another during the interview.

With his wife there to laugh with him at his Iowa misstep and attest to the fact that, in general, he doesn't have much of a temper and "doesn't get that angry," the scene was strikingly similar to the Clintons' well-remembered 60 Minutes interview on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 1992.

Then, Hillary Rodham Clinton was brought out in an 11th-hour effort to combat womanizing and draft-dodging charges that had taken a toll on her husband's presidential bid.

For Steinberg, who has almost completely shunned a public life even as the wife of the Vermont governor for 12 years, it was her first television interview, one she did reluctantly.

"I am kind of private, and I have a son in Burlington I like to stay with, and I have a medical practice which I love," Steinberg, who uses her maiden name in her professional life, said in the interview, taped yesterday afternoon at an inn in Vermont. "And that's what I like to do."

Steinberg, 50, has been more disconnected from her husband's presidential quest than perhaps any spouse of a major presidential candidate in modern American politics. Before last night, the Deans had stubbornly - and unapologetically - agreed that she would retain her distance from the political game. She had appeared only twice during Dean's nearly two years of campaigning - once in June, when her husband formally announced his candidacy in Vermont, and a second time Sunday, when she was called out to Iowa the day before the caucuses, as Dean's poll numbers were sinking fast.

Until this week, when his front-runner status suddenly slipped away, Dean had been boldly defending his wife's decision not to join him on the campaign. "It's about time somebody decided not to use their family as a prop," Dean said defiantly Monday night. "Most women in this country live the way my wife does."

Yesterday, however, Dean said he thought it was important for people to get to know his wife to get to know him.

His wife of 23 years said she agreed to do the interview "because Howard asked me to."

Unassuming, unadorned and, as she said, unmaterialistic, Steinberg helped make the couple seem like the people next door. She reinforced the perception that she is removed from her husband's presidential bid, saying she didn't see his wild-eyed display from Monday night until Wednesday - even though it has been all over television, radio and the Internet - when someone gave her a tape.

"I don't like watching TV that much," said the mother of 18-year-old Paul and 19-year-old Anne, a student at Yale.

She said she thought Dean's Iowa speech looked "kind of silly" but understood that he had been trying to "pump up" the crowd of kids who had been working for him in Iowa.

Asked about her absence from the campaign, Steinberg said, "I support Howard totally in what he's doing, and I think he'd make a great president," but added that she had patients who depend on her. "It's not something I can say, `Oh, you can take over for a month.' It just doesn't work like that."

It was not that long ago that Yale-trained lawyer Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed the role of political spouse into the spotlight with her presence in her husband's campaign. The Clintons' "buy one, get one free" slogan sparked mutterings of a "co-presidency" and much debate about how much influence a spouse should wield in matters of policy, personnel and politics.

During this primary season, however, it has been Steinberg's absence in her husband's presidential bid that has prompted similar discussions about the role of the political spouse and public expectations.

For all the changes that have revolutionized women's lives in the last half-century and recognized women as equal partners in marriages and in the workplace, any variation in the role of a presidential candidate's spouse, generally a wife, seems to set off its own sort of culture war.

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