Low-key woman is writing prescription for changing political life

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 20, 2003

SHELBURNE, Vt. &045; This is a day brought to you by the Chamber of Commerce. Leaf peeping is in full swing and the mountains hold more tourists than dairy farmers.

Just off a main road flanked by Halloween scarecrows, there is a former creamery that houses the mix-and-match office of a woman known as Dr. Judith Steinberg to her patients, and Judith Dean to her neighbors and, maybe soon, to the country.

The wife of Howard Dean, former governor and candidate for president, is here taking care of patients while her husband is on the road preparing for another debate. A dark-haired woman, dressed in a simple skirt and sweater, she is at first and second glance the least packaged of candidates’ wives. And maybe the least political.

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During the past months her husband has become something of a political phenom, but she says, &uot;I run my life like I ran my life before.&uot; No, she admits sheepishly, &uot;I don’t watch the debates because we don’t have cable TV. I don’t follow the campaign on the Web.&uot; And she adds with a smile, &uot;I don’t give advice.&uot;

What she does is practice medicine and run a home. More to the point, she expects to run her life this way throughout the 2004 campaign. And maybe, if she lets herself think that far ahead, in the White House.

This internist, wife and mother, with one daughter at Yale and one son in high school, seems wonderfully unaware that conducting business as usual is unusual. It’s a blitheness that may be one part personality and one part survival instinct.

But this is how this two-career family has lived ever since Dean began moving, gradually, out of practice and into politics. One Vermonter guesses that 90 percent of the people in the state her husband governed for 11 years wouldn’t recognize her on the street.

Of course, she has made some changes for the campaign. A woman who says, with a slight laugh, &uot;I’m not a fashion plate,” bought a red suit for the announcement. She also wrote her first fund-raising letter, explaining in part why she wouldn’t be campaigning: &uot;When people are sick they want and need to see a physician who knows them.”

This &uot;normal life” was not just her decision. &uot;Howard decided to run for president because he felt it was so important and he knew politics wasn’t my thing,&uot; she said. &uot;He wanted to do it without making my life difficult.&uot;

Indeed, if you want to see this Princeton graduate and daughter of two doctors light up, get her talking about the values of a small, private practice: &uot;If six patients call me with shortness of breath, I can tell which one needs to go to the emergency room and which one doesn’t,&uot; she said. Dr. Steinberg even, I hesitate to tell you, makes house calls.

In some ways, the Deans are like millions of American families working out their own set of rules. Dean may be the college favorite, the hip candidate, but his wife laughs, &uot;Hip is not the word our kids would use for him.&uot; He may be speaking on a national stage, but when he got home from his last trip, he did his own laundry&uot; &045; including some shirts that his wife says archly, should have gone to the cleaners.

At the same time, this couple presents something new to politics. We’ve been through a generation of changing roles and relationships, running through a Rolodex of candidate’s wives and first ladies from a repressed Pat Nixon to a two-for-the-price-of-one Hillary Clinton. Now the Deans ask us to imagine a candidate’s wife or a first lady who simply goes about her own, independent life. Not out of political pique, but out of professional commitment.

The woman who met her husband doing crossword puzzles in medical school is conscious of her own comfort zone: &uot;I support my husband wholeheartedly and if he needs me to be somewhere I’ll be there, but I love my job and he’s comfortable with that.”

Will the country be as comfortable? &uot;Some will say it’s great I have my own career and Howard supports it. Some will say I should be by his side. Some people will say it’s up to us, let us work it out.”

The Dean campaign keeps taking slogans from his profession: &uot;The Doctor is In” and &uot;Howard Dean is a Prescription for Change.” In fact, it’s Dr. Steinberg who is in. And maybe this low-key woman is writing a prescription for changing political life.

What if 2004 is the year they gave a campaign and the wife didn’t run?

Could we have a first lady who left the White House in the morning to take care of patients? Is that mere fantasy? Well, not much more so than finding a doctor who makes house calls.

(Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.)