Seeking the enigmatic Mrs. Dean

Posted: Jan 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Much has been made of the Invisible Wife of Dr. Howard Dean. Where's Judith?

Mrs. Dean, also known as Dr. Judith Steinberg, has stumped nearly everyone with her unusual absence from her husband's campaign. Is she shy, aloof, unsupportive, self-centered, passive-aggressive?


From what little we do know, it appears that Mrs. Dean is simply N/I - not interested. She doesn't like politics. She likes being a doctor and she's good at it, she says. She is not good at public appearances and would prefer to be left alone, thank you.

Here's what else we know based on a rash of recent stories. Dean's Wife - hereinafter known as "Steinberg" lest we become confused by so many doctors and deans - doesn't wear makeup or earrings, and prefers sensible slipper flats.

She wears sneakers to the grocery store where she buys bananas, milk, low-fat fudge bars, tea bags and wheat bran. She doesn't cook much, and has to go to her husband's campaign headquarters to watch televised debates because the Deans don't have cable. Zeitgeist surfers, they're not.

Otherwise, Steinberg is pretty much like the rest of married female America. She works hard, raises kids and attends PTA. The rather striking difference, of course, is that Steinberg's husband is likely to be the Democratic candidate for president.

Speaking as a gal of the same approximate vintage, I find Steinberg delightfully refreshing. Honest, unpretentious, self-contained, she's clearly the star of her own movie and doesn't need to share her husband's limelight.

As for her physical appearance, might we remind everyone that she lives in Vermont? This is the lowercase granola capital of the East. The flannel Berkeley. Nobody wears makeup in Vermont. Frankly, as compared to some Republican wives and candidates, who look like transvestites on a Mary Kay binge, Steinberg provides hygienic relief.

We might also consider that Steinberg is a physician. I don't know about you, but I prefer mine serious and unadorned. As for sensible flat shoes, ditto and thank you. At a time when hysterical women are hiring doctors to lop off toes so they can squeeze their stepsister feet into Cinderella Jimmy Choos, Steinberg is a human shrine to female sanity.

As I sit here warming my own toes in bow-tied guernsey cow slippers, I'm finding nothing not to like about this woman, including the fact that she routinely tells her husband to calm down. He doesn't listen, clearly, but what husband does after 23 years of marriage? My observation is that all husbands go deaf around the 12th year.

Still, curiosity about and even some criticism directed toward Steinberg are legitimate. It is odd in American life for any wife, especially that of a presidential contender, to be so aggressively absent. Part of marriage is showing up for the spouse even when it doesn't suit. It's part of the job, though admittedly for most of us it doesn't mean forfeiting outside employment.

Steinberg insists she'll continue working as a doctor should her husband win the Democratic nomination and November election, which is a nice if naive thought given the ever-presence of the Secret Service.

Beyond practicalities, Americans have a right to visit with the woman who would represent their feminine side to the rest of the world. Will she schlep around the White House in jeans and sneakers? Will the woman whose home features green shag carpet (not that there's anything wrong with that) feel compelled to dress down the White House? Will she show up for State dinners in paisley saris and Birkenstocks?

Style isn't everything, but when you're representing the nation, it's something. Americans never have fully recovered from the sheen they enjoyed in the reflection of Jacqueline Kennedy. And though thrift is good (Dean prides himself on owning a J.C. Penney suit and Steinberg her single red suit), willful shabbiness in circumstances demanding decorum is merely self-important.

I-just-gotta-be-me is fine for kids discovering who they are, but most Americans prefer that their public representatives look like grownups. Even those who didn't like Ronald Reagan's politics admired his respect for the Oval Office, where he wore a tie and rarely removed his coat.

No one needs to be reminded of the contrast offered by a subsequent tenant.

Finally, it's instructive to see how a man and wife behave together. I can live without the perfunctory hand-holding and worshipful Bambi gazing - and really must insist on no swimsuit dances on sandy beaches - but the first couple's style infects and reflects our own. Americans deserve to see what they're apt to get.