Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Judith Steinberg, Mrs. Dean: The New York Times has begun to talk about the issue I mentioned last week -- potential First Lady Dean. The piece leads with the question that so many have hesitated to ask:
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?"
Why has that question lingered underground for so long? Because it's sexist, this expectation that Dean's wife will, as Hillary put it, be the Tammy Wynette character? Dean has tried to make it so, as when he said he wouldn't "drag" his wife out on the campaign trail. The Times heads briefly, but directly, into this dichotomy:
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.
It's true that this makes some voters uncomfortable, and not just for sexist reasons or because of old-fashioned family notions. Voters want to take the measure of the candidate, and part of that has traditionally "meeting the family," as it were, seeing the spousal relationship that the candidate had chosen. It completes the picture. Think of Ron without Nancy: It's an incomplete picture. No matter the character of the relationship, the First Lady speaks volumes about her husband: the suspicious, protective Nancy; the hard-charging political partner Hillary; Jack's glamour-girl showpiece Jackie. It is obviously Steinberg's privilege to stay on the sidelines, though she must realize that her non-participation is in itself a statement of a sort, and one that will appeal to a limited number of voters. (For example: "I just want to say I'm glad your wife is your wife and I'm glad she does what she does," [Helen] Grunewald, 53, told Dr. Dean at a recent forum. "We don't all need Laura Bush and mommy in the White House.")

Personally, I have no problem with Steinberg's decision not to be involved. It shows that she's a grown up. Is it unfair that it will be an issue, even a liability, for Dean? Maybe. Of course, Laura Bush made it clear that she was opting out of the politics, that she wanted to be non-partisan; she still got treated rudely on occasion by folks with an axe to grind.

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