First Lady Wouldn’t Be Her Full-Time Job
Dr. Judith Steinberg, an internist in Shelburne, Vt., cherishes her privacy. Fond of taking solo rides along nearby Burlington’s lake-hugging bicycle path, the wife of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is -- by her own account -- a private person who has not made a public speech in nearly 20 years and has never given a radio or television interview.
And Steinberg says she has no intention of changing that behavior just because her husband is running for president.
Except for an occasional interview, Steinberg said she had no plans to give speeches or stump on the campaign trail. If Dean is elected president, she hopes to move her medical practice to Washington.
Asked whether she would use the bully pulpit of the White House to advocate policy, perhaps on medical issues, Steinberg demurred.
“I really enjoy people one on one. I enjoy listening to them,” she said. “I’m not that comfortable speaking to groups. I have my opinions, but they are from a narrow point of view, a doctor’s or even a patient’s.”
“I would have to broaden my viewpoint” before speaking out on policy, she said.
Steinberg, 50, does not seem inclined to do so. “I don’t think I’d have much of a staff,” she said. “I don’t think I would normally travel because that would take me away from my practice.”
And her husband said that if he won the White House, he would not expect his wife to abandon her career.
“Why give up a job she loves?” Dean asked. He seemed certain that his wife’s passion for privacy would raise eyebrows in Washington. “Undoubtedly it will. We might as well get it out early.”
Dean’s candidacy has surged in the last month -- he is leading among likely Democratic voters in California in the latest Field Poll -- and some moderate party leaders fear that if Dean wins the nomination, he could steer the party to the left in a replay of the Michael S. Dukakis and George S. McGovern election routs.
Some political observers believe his wife’s absence on the campaign trail -- and likely nonattendance at the White House -- could hurt him politically.
“America wants a first lady,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, one of the capital’s best-read political newsletters. “If this is a viable candidacy, if by September he looks like he’s got a real shot, this is going to become an issue.”
But the couple are confident, as are some analysts, that they can turn his wife’s independent life into a campaign asset.
“It will hurt and it will help,” Dean said. Traditionalists may object, he argues, but working women may rally to a first lady who also works outside the home.
“We have a true partnership based on mutual respect,” he said. “She is going to be different than most first ladies.”
Far from the model favored by Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- a two-for-one co-presidency in which Hillary Clinton played a major role in formulating White House policy -- Dean and Steinberg are offering a new paradigm.
In the nearly 12 years that Dean was governor of Vermont, Steinberg attended only a few official events a year, and then only when her husband asked.
She said Vermont accepted her career, and she expects the nation to as well.
“I think the country’s ready,” she said. “I’m like a lot of women. I go to work. My husband travels for his job.”
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, agreed that Steinberg’s arms-length approach to her husband’s career could be turned to political advantage. “I think the public might find it quite refreshing,” she said. “It reinforces his profile as an anti-politician. It’s who they are.”
But some Vermonters said the extent of Steinberg’s un-involvement in politics was unusual -- even for a state of iconoclasts.
“I’m very close to him politically and I’ve barely met her,” said former Gov. Thomas Salmon, now practicing law in Bellows Falls, Vt. “She has fundamentally shunned public events of all descriptions. She is an inordinately private person.”
Dean was catapulted to the governor’s office when the incumbent, Gov. Richard Snelling, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1991. Vermont’s part-time lieutenant governor, who like his wife is a doctor, was conducting an electrocardiogram on a patient at the time. He soon left for the statehouse in Montpelier to be sworn in as governor. His wife finished seeing his patients that day.
“When she was the first lady of Vermont, I asked her to attend the things I thought were important, but I didn’t ask her to a lot of things,” Dean said. “It’s not her bag. What she does really well is be a doctor and a mother.”
Not all Vermonters were enamored of the Dean model.
“She never came to any of the lunches that governors gave for former governors and their families,” noted Lola Aiken, whose husband, George, was Vermont’s governor from 1937 to 1941 and a U.S. senator for 34 years.
“I hear people say that they don’t know what she looks like and they’ve never heard her talk. I don’t think any first lady can avoid the White House.”
The couple shielded their children -- Anne, a student at Yale University, and Paul, a senior in high school -- from the public spotlight.
On Tuesday, Paul Dean agreed to take part in a court diversion program, initiated by his father for first-time offenders, for the theft of alcohol with four friends from the Burlington Country Club two months ago. Afterward, according to Associated Press, Dean refused to discuss how the incident might affect his candidacy. “I don’t want to mix things,” he told reporters. “We’re not going to be talking about politics and family business at the same press conference.”
In general, Dean has criticized news organizations for reporting on the private lives of children of public figures, particularly President Bush’s twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna. In a recent picture spread on the Democratic presidential field, Esquire magazine showcased candidates with their families. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and his family are in the kitchen. The Rev. Al Sharpton and his wife, Kathy, are dining at a soul-food restaurant in Harlem. But Dean was “adamant about not including his family in the portrait,” said the photographer, who instead shot the former governor surrounded by young campaign aides.
Unfazed by his wife’s separate career track -- “I’m proud of her independence,” he said -- Dean recalled that when he was chairman of the National Governors Assn., there were frequent social events, so he invited Susan Bayh -- wife of Evan Bayh, Indiana’s former governor and now a Democratic senator -- to act as his first lady. “Susan agreed to be my surrogate spouse. She’s very outgoing; she likes politics.”
Vowing to do more state dinners than the Bush White House, because “our foreign diplomacy is abysmal,” Dean noted that unmarried presidents survived the social whirlwind. “They worked it out and we will too,” he said “I’m not going to drag her to all the state dinners.”
The couple met when they were students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Steinberg, the daughter of two doctors, said that during classes that were “not that exciting,” they used to sit in the back doing crossword puzzles. Dean told staffers that she was the smartest woman he’d ever met and, of the two of them, the better doctor.
“Howard adores her,” said Julie Peterson, his gubernatorial chief of staff. Peterson said that when Dean called his wife’s office, he would say, “Is the charming Dr. Steinberg available?”
Steinberg is Jewish. Dean was born Catholic and converted to Congregationalism. The Dean children have been exposed to both religions -- celebrating Jewish holidays with her family, and Christmas and other Christian holidays with his.
Like the fictional President Bartlet’s physician-wife, Abby, in the television show “The West Wing,” Steinberg is petite, with shoulder-length dark hair. She loves to read, particularly mystery novels that she used to trade with Kathy Hoyt, another former Dean chief of staff.
“People in Vermont admire her,” Hoyt said. “She is a wonderfully kind, very thoughtful and gentle personality who makes you feel comfortable.”
Not much for formality -- neither Dean nor Steinberg is a fashion plate, and Hoyt reports that staffers all but kidnapped Dean once during a national governors’ conference in Boston and took him to be outfitted at Brooks Brothers -- the couple scotched inaugural balls in favor of open houses and donations to charities, said several friends and former staffers.
“She takes the practice of medicine as seriously as he takes his politics,” said David Wolk, president of Vermont’s Castleton State College.
Steinberg said she loves making house calls. “Our patients really appreciate it, and it’s fun to see how they live.”
She supports her husband’s presidential drive -- “I think he’s a terrific, capable, honest person,” she says -- and imagines that she will soon have to tackle broadcast interviews.
“I don’t know if shy is the right word,” she said of herself. “I’m very sociable with my friends. I’m just not very comfortable with a big group.” She said the last time she made a speech was in the mid-1980s, when she was a fellow in hematology. She plans none for the rest of Dean’s campaign, though she said she might go to some state dinners.
“What I really plan to do is continue medicine” regardless of logistical concerns, she said. “I really love it, and I’m good at it.”