I used to think we should get rid of First Ladies. Plenty of countries manage without a national wife: Cherie Blair aside (and how long would Britain’s answer to Hillary have lasted over here?), can you name the spouse of the man who leads France, Germany, China, Canada or Russia? And no, “Mrs. Putin” doesn’t count as a correct answer. Is Lula married? What about Ariel Sharon? Is there a Mrs. General Musharraf ready with a nice cup of tea when her man comes home after walking the nuclear weapons? Do you care? The ongoing public inquest into Dr. Judith Steinberg makes me see, however, that we need First Ladies: Without them, American women might actually believe that they are liberated, that modern marriage is an equal partnership, that the work they are trained for and paid to do is important whether or not they are married, and that it is socially acceptable for adult women in the year 2004 to possess distinct personalities–even quirks! Without First Ladies, a woman might imagine that whether she keeps or changes her name is a private, personal choice, the way the young post-post-feminists always insist it is when they write those annoying articles explaining why they are now calling themselves Mrs. My Husband.
The attack on Dr. Judy began on the front page of the New York Times (you know, the ultraliberal paper) with a January 13 feature by Jodi Wilgoren, full of catty remarks about her “sensible slipper flats and no makeup or earrings” and fatuous observations from such academic eminences as Myra Gutin, “who has taught a course on first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey for 20 years.” It seems that Dr. Steinberg “fits nowhere” in Professor Gutin’s categorizations. Given that she counts Pat Nixon as an “emerging spokeswoman,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing. “The doctors Dean seem to be in need of some tips on togetherness and building a healthy political marriage,” opined Maureen Dowd, a single woman who, even if she weds tomorrow, will be in a nursing home by the time she’s been married for twenty-three years like the Deans. Tina Brown, another goddess of the hearth, compared Dr. Judy to mad Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. On ABC News’s Primetime, Diane Sawyer put both Deans on the grill, with, according to Alexander Stille, who counted for the LA Times, ninety negative questions out of a total of ninety-six. Blinking and nodding like a kindly nurse coaxing a lunatic off a window ledge, Sawyer acted as if she wanted to understand Dr. Judy’s bizarre behavior: She keeps her maiden name professionally (just like, um, Diane Sawyer, a k a Mrs. Mike Nichols); she doesn’t follow the day-to-day of politics (like, what, 90 percent of Americans?); she enjoyed getting a rhododendron from Howard for her birthday. Throughout this sexist inquisition, Dr. Steinberg remained as gentle as a fawn, polite and unassuming–herself. “I’m not a very ‘thing’ person,” she said when Sawyer pressed too close on that all-important rhododendron. She allowed as how she was not too interested in clothes–whereupon Sawyer cut to a photo of Laura Bush, smiling placidly in a red ball gown.
I don’t think Dr. Judy is weird at all. She’s leading a normal, modern, middle-class-professional life. She has been married forever. She has two children. She likes camping and bike riding and picnics. She volunteers. She has work she loves, as a community physician–not, you’ll note, as a cold-hearted status-obsessed selfish careerist user, as professional women are always accused of being. (Let’s also note that she is not someone who was ever, even once, during her husband’s twelve-year stint as governor of Vermont, accused of using her marriage to advance a friend or enrich herself or obtain special perks and privileges.) And here’s another secret: Not too many women in long marriages want to spend their lives gazing rapturously at their husband for the benefit of the camera every time he opens his mouth. Vermonters liked Judy Dean–they had no problem with her low-key, independent style. But, then, if you listen to the press, you know Vermonters–they’re weird, too.
I have no idea why Judith Steinberg hasn’t slogged through the snow for her husband. Maybe she’s nervous in public. Maybe she’s busy. (“It’s not something I can say, ‘Oh, you take over for a month,'” she explained to Diane Sawyer. Imagine that, Tina, Diane, Maureen–a job where if you don’t show up, it matters!) Maybe, like lots of Democrats, she’s waiting to see if the Dean campaign has legs. It’s possible she and her husband didn’t understand they had left the real world for Mediaville, where it’s always 1955, and thought it was no big deal if she kept working in Shelburne instead of being marched around Iowa in a power suit with a big bottle of Valium in her purse. Here’s something I do know, though: Every day, this woman, about whom nobody who knows her has a mean word to say, gets up and does one of the most valuable things a human being can do on this earth: She takes care of sick people. Ordinary local people, not media princesses and princes. Is that the problem? If Judy Steinberg were a cosmetic surgeon or a diet doctor or held Botox parties after office hours, if her patients were famous, or the friends of the famous, if she could dish on the phone about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Martha Stewart, would the media cat pack think Judy Steinberg was cool?
Granted, rightly or wrongly, the media are going to take a look at the wives of the candidates, so you can argue that the Deans should have been prepared, especially given the media’s dislike of Howard. This, after all, is the same media that managed to make a major scandal out of the Scream, a moment of campaign exuberance of zero importance (especially when compared with–for example!–Bush’s inability to speak two consecutive unscripted sentences that are not gibberish, his refusal to read newspapers and the fact that much of the world thinks he’s a dangerous moron). But actually, it’s only when a wife has her own identity that her choices are scrutinized. If Dr. Judith Steinberg was simply Judy Dean, if she spent her life doing nothing so important it couldn’t be dropped to follow her husband as he followed his star, no one would question her priorities. No one thought less of Barbara Bush because she dropped out of college to get married, like those Wellesley girls in Mona Lisa Smile. No one reprimands Laura Bush for abandoning her career as a librarian and spending her life as her husband’s den mother. No one asks Hadassah Lieberman or Elizabeth Edwards or Gertie Clark how come they have so much free time on their hands that they can saddle up with their husbands’ campaign for months, or why, if they care so much about politics, they aren’t running for office themselves.
Don’t you wish, just once, the questioners and pontificators would turn it around? After all, if a woman were running for President, would they expect her doctor husband to abandon his ailing patients and his high-school-age son to soften her image? Au contraire, they would regard such a man as a pussy-whipped wimp, a loser, very possibly even…weird. When Bob Dole said he’d give money to John McCain, his wife Elizabeth’s rival in her brief presidential campaign in 2000, nobody called him a self-centered, disengaged, mean husband, or made much of the fact that his wife had knocked herself out for him when he ran in 1996.
What if the media tried on for size the notion that having an independent wife says something good about a candidate? For example, maybe, if his wife is not at his beck and call, he won’t assume the sun rises because he wants to get up; maybe, if his wife has her own goals in life, her own path to tread, he won’t think women were put on earth to further his ambitions; maybe, if he and his wife are true partners–which is not the same as her pouring herself into his career and his being genuinely grateful, the best-case scenario of the traditional political marriage–he may even see women as equals. Why isn’t it the candidates who use their wives to further their careers with plastic smiles and cheery waves who have to squirm on Primetime?
Dean’s poor showing in Iowa and second-place finish in New Hampshire suggest that media mud sticks. In a race with many candidates, in which the top contenders each have their pluses and minuses but are also rather close to one another politically, perception matters. Dean too “angry”? Something off about the marriage? Mrs. Dean a fruitcake? Oh, you heard that too? A lot of Democratic primary voters are looking not for the candidate they themselves like best but for the one with the best shot at beating Bush. If a candidate starts looking wounded, however unfair the attack, forget him–on to the next. The process feels a bit like rifling through the sale racks at Bloomingdale’s when you have to find a fancy dress for a party given by strangers–no, no, maybe, hmmm, oh all right–but who knows, maybe out of all this second-guessing the strongest candidate, with the broadest appeal and the best organization, will ultimately emerge.
Right now, John Kerry may look like that man. But consider this: Before Dr. Judy, it was Teresa Heinz Kerry in the headlights of the New York Times front page. She was, John Tierney suggested, too opinionated, not fixated enough on her husband, unable to connect with the voters, off in her own world. You know, weird. There was that pesky name problem, too: Teresa Heinz? Teresa Kerry? Such a puzzle.