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The Nation

First Lady Wouldn't Be Her Full-Time Job

Judith Steinberg has no intention of changing her lifestyle if her spouse, Howard Dean, is elected. That includes her medical practice.

August 06, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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."

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