The Other Doctor in Dean's House Shuns Politics

New York Times

January 13, 2004


BURLINGTON, Vt., Jan. 12 — Eddie Kasperowicz, 74 and retired from the Seabrook, N.H., auto plant that Howard Dean was touring the other day, had a question unrelated to his union's hot-button issues of trade and health care. "When," he wondered, "will America have a chance to meet your bride?"

No time soon, Dr. Dean told him, "unless you get sick in Shelburne, Vt., in which case she'll probably see you."

In 23 years of marriage, 18 of which Dr. Dean has spent running for, or serving in, office, his wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, has developed an unusual role for the political spouse: invisible.

During Dr. Dean's two years of relentless campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dr. Steinberg has stood by her husband's side at a political event exactly once, at his official announcement speech here in June. A country doctor who still makes the occasional house call and attends PTA meetings, Dr. Steinberg has given about a dozen interviews — none televised — two fund-raising letters and a cameo on a half-hour advertisement.

She has never been to Iowa.

It is a reprise of her performance as first lady of Vermont. When Dr. Dean became governor, Dr. Steinberg reluctantly danced through the first two inaugural balls, in 1993 and 1995, but that event was soon cut from the state capital calendar and replaced with an open house, which she skipped. Dr. Dean, for his part, rarely uttered her name, even to say thanks, in public speeches.

"I think a lot of couples are like us, where they have two career-couples, and both careers are very important to the individuals," Dr. Steinberg, 50, said in an interview this fall. "Each individual has to do what works for her. What works best for me, and what I'm best at, is being a doctor."

Watching one of the nationally televised presidential debates at Dr. Dean's headquarters here, Dr. Steinberg laughed at her husband's old jokes, clapped when he scored a zinger and cringed as he tried a line she hated about how he did not become a teacher because of the long hours standing without bathroom breaks — a line he soon stopped using. In their nightly telephone chats, Dr. Dean calls his wife "Sweetie" as she updates him on everything from their two children to his dry cleaning.

"I do not intend to drag her around because I think I need her as a prop on the campaign trail," Dr. Dean said last week in Iowa. "If she wanted to do it, it'd be great, but she doesn't want to do it, and therefore if she does do it, it won't be great. I just think she should do what she needs to do for her own happiness and satisfaction."

Some Dean backers see Dr. Steinberg as a role model for independent women balancing careers and children, but others in the campaign increasingly regard her absence as a potential liability for a candidate who is known for his reluctance to discuss his personal life or upbringing. Yet the topic is all but off-limits with the candidate. Voters also have begun to ask about a marriage in which the partners are so often apart — she skipped Dr. Dean's birthday-party fund-raiser, the family-oriented Renaissance Weekend, even the emotional repatriation ceremony of his brother's remains in Hawaii.

Political experts say spouses often help humanize the candidates they are married to. A spouse, the person presumably closest to the candidate, also provides a window into a politician's character, they said, and acts as a kind of validator.

"The whole thing has just struck me as a little odd," said Myra Gutin, who has taught a course on first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey for 20 years. "There may be some voters out there who say, `well, why isn't she here? Why isn't she supporting him?' It's the most outward manifestation of support."

In her book, "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the 20th Century," Ms. Gutin outlined three broad categories: "ceremonial" (Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower), whose White House role was mainly entertaining; "emerging spokeswoman" (Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon), who seized the podium to promote issues important to them; and "activist" (Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford). Dr. Steinberg, she said, fits nowhere.

The wives of this year's other prominent Democratic contenders — Gert Clark, Elizabeth Edwards, Jane Gephardt, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Hadassah Lieberman — have all spent significant time on the campaign trail, both by literally standing by their men and by headlining events on their own. While the other spouses are key consultants on both strategy and policy, Dr. Dean said he kept the news that former Vice President Al Gore would endorse him secret from Dr. Steinberg for nearly three days.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton was controversial for being her husband's full political partner, some analysts say that Dr. Steinberg's lack of participation might prove even more problematic.

"The other candidates will come around with their wives and say `here we are,' and then there will be these questions," said Lewis Gould, a University of Texas historian emeritus who is editing a biography series, "Modern First Ladies." "This is the most important office in the world and you ought to have an interest that your husband is doing it. So, where are you?"

Most of the time, wearing sensible slipper-flats and no makeup or earrings, Dr. Steinberg can be found in an unadorned medical office she shares with two colleagues in the suburb of Shelburne, where the snapshots under the desk's glass top have not been changed since it belonged to her husband, before he became governor in 1991.

Or she might be puttering around their five-bedroom ranch-style house near Lake Champlain, writing a list of chores — fix the toilet, change the light over the stoop — for Dr. Dean to tackle on his rare days home. Or racing through Hannaford's supermarket in sneakers at 10 p.m., her list of bananas, milk, wheat bran, low-fat fudge bars, aluminum foil, tea bags, Gatorade, lemonade and grapefruit ordered according to aisle location.

"I'm very happy doing what I do," she said. "He's happy doing what he does. I think that he's doing a great job, and I think that he thinks what I do is a great job."

Dr. Steinberg said she is simply too busy to get involved in the campaign. Along with her work, and a bimonthly book group, she has volunteer commitments at Burlington High School, where the Deans' son, Paul, 17, is a senior (their daughter, Anne, 19, is a sophomore at Yale).

Lacking cable television, Dr. Steinberg tries to get to headquarters for watch debates, though she skipped at least one to do laundry.

Show up on the campaign trail? She doesn't even keep track of the schedule. "He has so many events each day that I'd have to take an hour out of my day to follow it," said Dr. Steinberg, who grew up in the Long Island town of Roslyn, N.Y., the daughter of two doctors.

Dr. Dean has spent, on average, just four nights a month here in Burlington, for nearly a year. Though Dr. Steinberg and their children are Jewish, he campaigned through Yom Kippur, and recited the Rosh Hashanah blessings via cellphone. He calls home nightly unless he is on the West Coast and fears waking her, but rarely shares tales from the trail. "I don't talk politics," he said, "with people who aren't interested in politics."

Dr. Steinberg said: "I couldn't be more supportive, but I don't show my support by traveling with him. I'd rather be seeing patients."

Her patients joke, now, about chartering a bus to Washington for checkups, while the pundits muse about how the Secret Service would handle privacy concerns. Dr. Steinberg said she planned to keep practicing medicine if her husband is elected, but she had seen enough episodes of "The West Wing" to know that were she to become the real-life version of Stockard Channing's Dr. Bartlett — wife of the fictional President Bartlett — she would "certainly have to do some public events."

"I'd do the ones that Howard would think were most important," she said.

The couple met at Albert Einstein Medical School in the Bronx, doing crosswords in neuroanatomy class ("She got a 99, I got a 35," he said. "34 was passing.") Their first date was dinner at his parents' Park Avenue apartment.

She followed him to Burlington after he failed to get a residency in New York, and they practiced together for a decade in Shelburne. Before he ran for lieutenant governor, in 1986, "we took a long walk, which is what we do when we discuss big issues," Dr. Steinberg recalled.

"His take on it was, he decided he should run," she said. "My take on it was, we decided that if he wanted to run, I had said it would not hurt the family. The next day, the reporter called me and said, `What do you think of him running for lieutenant governor?' I was a little surprised. I didn't know he'd gotten to the next step."

Friends here said the couple hardly socializes, except to attend their children's sporting events. They don't cook much, either — at least not since the early 1980's, when Dr. Dean decided to bake apple pies for the neighbors, which took all day, "and the apple pie was not that good," she said.

While voters like Mr. Kasperowicz wonder when Dr. Dean will introduce his wife, others like Helen Grunewald a photography professor from Blairstown, Iowa, applaud the path they have taken.

"I just want to say I'm glad your wife is your wife and I'm glad she does what she does," Ms. Grunewald, 53, told Dr. Dean at a recent forum. "We don't all need Laura Bush and mommy in the White House."

Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist, said that though "the country has come a long way in terms of what they think the model of a first lady should be like," the couple would need to appear together if Dr. Dean progresses. "It can be a very controlled kind of thing, but they do need to look for a few places where she can talk a little about herself, about her husband," Ms. Dunn said.

But nothing of the kind seems to be penciled in on the schedule that Dr. Steinberg says she does not follow. "If I get elected," Dr. Dean said the other day in Iowa, "you'll meet her in the White House."