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Judy, Judy, JUDY!

by Deborah Alden

Judy and Howard Dean

You’d have to be under a rock to miss the media frenzy swirling around Judith Steinberg Dean as her husband runs for the next primary in the sprint toward Super Tuesday. The anticipation is excruciating. New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and William Safire write about it, Michael Kinsley in Time takes the subject of political wives to task, Web sites throughout the country are thrumming with the question of whether Dean needs to give over his wife as a token for the ride to the presidency. As we tune in to see last minute trips to Iowa, spreads in People magazine, and evening interviews with Diane Sawyer, we Vermonters are sitting back with a different perspective. This is our Judy, the one whose privacy we’ve honored, the wife and doctor Vermont calls its own. Now, however, she’s being called out. The scenario has yet to be written and people across the nation are watching daily, wondering if this saga might not be as big as the blockbuster on Ellen or the upcoming finale to the sitcom Friends. Will she or won’t she? Only her husband knows for sure.

Does it Matter

On a very serious note, Steinberg’s husband is running for president. It’s understandable that in a country where media consumption ranks as a gross national product, the networks, journals, and tabloids would be screaming for a glimpse of the woman who would be first lady. Television and print are the only ways for the rest of the country to meet Vermont, so if a former Vermont Governor wants the country to understand him, he’ll likely have to introduce everyone to his wife. It’s a big country, so he’ll have to introduce her more than once. Some would contend that these are the primaries, that now is the time for issues. The time for real campaigning comes later. It’s a safe guess, however, that Joe Trippi and other campaign managers understand this is the moment. Without the primaries, there is no campaign. Gone are the days of the vote-swaying electoral speeches of the Democratic Convention. These votes need to be locked up in advance, and everyone knows it.

It’s Different in Vermont

The Vermont media is used to the private Dean household. Bridget Barry Caswell, a reporter with WCAX-TV in Burlington, noted that after 12 years of covering the governor, she was used to avoiding questions of wife, home, and family. "Who’s to judge her and her choices and their marriage," she says. "It works for them." Still, Barry Caswell admits that there was a collective shudder among the Vermont media when the governor announced his plans to run. "There was part of me that wanted to ask her if it bothered her at some point that her private life would disappear," she says. They all knew that it couldn’t last and that the media beyond our protective mountains wouldn’t be nearly as respectful of the boundaries the Deans had placed on their home life. "She doesn’t like politics," Barry Caswell reminds us, "she likes treating her patients. I think Vermonters have respected that. But Vermont is different. It’s a very different world out there."

So it goes that when Howard Dean is accused of losing his temper, ranting, or acting out, the media rushes to condemn Judy Dean for not facing down those accusations and softening his image. When she does appear, they’re quick to call it a media stunt, a strategy. Can’t win for trying, can you? Still, even Vermont reporters agree that a little dose of Judy early on might have helped to allay those concerns and calm the voices calling Dean a hothead. "I do think because of the public perception of Howard Dean as an angry person that it would have benefited him to have her out sooner," Caswell says. Andy Wormser, News Director at WPTZ-TV disagrees. When asked it he felt it was necessary for Mrs. Dean to step out for the media, Wormser gave a one-word answer: "No."

This is the couple Vermont is used to, it’s part of the "different from the rest" message that Dean runs in his campaign, Wormser adds. "For us here in Vermont it’s very much the status quo," Wormser says of the lack of exposure on Mrs. Dean. Vermonters got used to it and so will the country, he seems to say. "I think if his campaign takes off it will matter less and less," Wormser says. Many would say the opposite is true. "I do think on the one hand there’s tremendous respect for her career choices, her family, and her profession. On the other hand, we’re talking about the potential First Lady of the United States," Barry Caswell says. It’s important to know the candidate’s wife, she adds. "I think it says something about him. I think knowing a little about her gives us a window into him."

Will He Ask or Won’t He?

Vermonters already have a pretty clear window into their former governor and his family, at least enough to know that the shades are drawn out of respect for privacy. "Vermonters have been remarkable in respecting her privacy," says her campaign representative, Susan Allen Piccone. Piccone admits that it’s hard for others to understand, but that it’s how they want it for their family. "It’s so hard for other people to understand," she says. "They’re just very private people."

Perhaps the most protective of their privacy is the candidate himself. In describing his approach to media calls and requests, Piccone describes the Governor like the guard dog at the gate. "His feeling is they [the family] didn’t ask for this, he did." Still, there’s an understanding between husband and wife that she will be there whenever he asks. "She will do anything that he asks her to do," Piccone says. "She respects that he will only ask when it’s important. If he asks, she knows it’s important and she will do it." Hence the trip to Iowa the morning after cooking for and hosting the Burlington High School hockey team in her home for her son Paul’s team dinner. Thus the People magazine interview and the television interview with Diane Sawyer.

Too scripted, some say, too late to be effective. The ultimate irony may be that there was nothing scripted about any of it. Perhaps it’s just that he respects his wife and her choices. Perhaps the real fault here is that Howard Dean loves Judy Dean enough to have reserved that request for the moment when he really needed it: New Hampshire.

Sadly enough, a country fed on media moments can only see a cooked-up opportunity. What they can’t recognize is a genuine moment brought about by a couple who sets very careful limits on their time away from the family, in public, and in the media glare. Authenticity almost always misses its mark in prime time.

"She has probably been the most absent spouse in the history of presidential campaigns," Michael Kinsley wrote of Judy Dean in his essay "Why We Want to Meet the Missus." "And he would probably like to change that. But it’s not up to him, is it?" Kinsley contends of Dean and his rapport with his wife. Interestingly enough, Mr. Kinsley, the Vermont media knows the drill. If he asks, she goes. The real question is why he didn’t ask sooner. "I think he hasn’t asked her because he respects her," Barry Caswell says. "He doesn’t want to make her change her career for him." Love, respect, and an appreciation for boundaries and limits. These sound like virtues in a presidential candidate, and yet they’re playing as flaws. "They’re doing what works for them and their family," Piccone says, remembering that their youngest is a high-school senior, soon to fly the nest. The Deans are committed to having one parent at home with him even if the other is traipsing about the country.

What We Know About Her

Judith Steinberg Dean isn’t really a mystery, she’s just straightforward. She’s a doctor, a mother, a simple dresser, and a very steady, cheerful person. "I’ve never once heard her complain," says Piccone of Judy Dean as she fields the barbs of the campaign. "She is by nature very calm, very low key. I’ve never seen her very worked up or stressed," Piccone says. "She’s one of those truly happy, comfortable people," she adds. "She’s just the nicest person in the world and never without a grin from ear to ear," says Barry Caswell. "She values the things that are important, her family and her profession." Vermonters appreciate that steadiness. For them, it’s been part of what makes the Deans so special. "She’s very much her own person and is not afraid to say ‘This is between us,’ is not afraid to set boundaries," says Wormser.

It is that steady, cheerful approach that one can expect from Judy Dean should she move to Washington and the White House. "He won’t be a solo act," insists Piccone when asked if Mrs. Dean would eschew a move to Washington. "Yes, she would move to Washington and she would love to open a practice." Does she realize that such plans might be dangerous, even impossible? "Yes," Piccone admits. "She’s also going to be First Lady of the United States [should he win]. She’s going to do state dinners and official functions." No, she won’t be selecting new White House china or leading a decorating tour. But hey, that’s been done before. Kinsley writes, "We have no model for Steinberg, about whom we know almost nothing except that she is Jewish and a doctor." Maybe Kinsley should come to Vermont. Folks here seem to know enough to make them stand behind her. What candidate could ask for more?