Drudge made a big deal of this NYT story: Dean’s Wife Shuns Politics and the story has caught the fancy of the blog world.

Michele Catalano is angry that anyone would make an issue of it. Steven Taylor was fairly analytical for 5:44 in the morning. McAllan thinks it wrong for reasons he can’t put his finger on and dubs it a “hit piece.” Kevin Drum thinks the report is a fair reflection of human nature.

Much of this simply reflects the changing expectations in society as to the role of wives, political or otherwise. Certainly, it’s not scandalous that a medical doctor would continue her career rather than spending two years wandering around the hustings in Iowa and New Hampshire with her ambitious hubby. Still, if all the other wives are doing it, then her not doing it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. And, of course, Dean is the frontrunner and thus he gets more scrutiny.

The wives of presidents and presidential candidates have come under great scrutiny for longer than I can remember. Certainly, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy were major public figures. Nancy Reagan came under very harsh criticism for her rather upscale tastes; there was a huge flap over expensive china she bought for the White House and something about the dresses she wore. Much later was the astrology business and charges that she was meddling with the staff. Barbara Bush was much beloved and very much a part of the campaigns, especially the ill-fated 1992 reelection bid. Hillary Clinton was a major lightning rod before she re-inserted the “Rodham.” I doubt Bill could have survived the Gennifer Flowers scandal had Hillary not, ironically, stood by her man on 60 Minutes. Liddy Dole was by far the most charismatic Dole campaigning in 1996. Al Gore reignited a moribund campaign with that long kiss with Tipper at the 2000 Democratic convention. Like it or not, the wives matter.

We’re certainly in a new era. Most women have jobs now even after the marriage. Many, like Dr. Steinberg, have actual careers. It’s almost certainly unfair to expect them to drop everything in support of their husbands. Indeed, my guess is we won’t expect that of the husband of the first viable female candidate for president. Still, I wonder if there wouldn’t be more criticism if Steinberg were a librarian or a schoolteacher rather than a doctor?

More than anything, though, this story is about Howard Dean as a person rather than about whether his wife campaigns with him. Frankly, by the standards of people running for high office, Howard Dean is a little odd. Given the type of people we seem to attract as candidates, that may be a good thing. But most people gravitate to presidential candidates who simultaneously exude an air of confidence and yet come across as a “regular guy.” George W. Bush fits that image. All of the dismissal of him as a “frat boy” in 2000 was rather comical, in that most people actually like their leaders to be the type of guy who was chasing girls and going to parties in college. Al Gore realized that and spent most of the campaign trying to do one make-over after another. Indeed, the aforementioned kiss was one such attempt to humanize himself.

It’s not unnatural for people to wonder what kind of man Dean is, and his relationship with his family is part of this. Clearly, to an unusual extent for public figures, the Deans lead separate lives. (Indeed, one wonders whether to call them “the Deans” since, technically, she isn’t a Dean but rather a Steinberg.) He has his career, she hers. He has his religion, she has hers. Some people will find that strange. They have every right to that opinion and to weigh that in when deciding whom to elect as their president.

Personally, I think there are enough reasons not to vote for Howard Dean without worrying about this one.

*Actually, she’s going by her maiden name “Steinberg,” but that makes for a lousy headline.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Best of OTB, Gender Issues, Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kevin Drum says:

    My main point wasn’t whether it was odd or not for Steinberg to act the way she does, but just whether or not reporting it was a legitimate thing for the NYT to do.

    I happen to think that what she does is just fine, and I look forward to the day when everyone else thinks it’s just fine too. However, that day hasn’t arrived, and I don’t think the NYT did anything wrong in running this story. Putting up with stories about the personal life of presidential candidates and their marriages is just part of the game.

    (Granted, though, the paragraph implying that maybe something was wrong with their marriage was probably out of bounds.)

  2. McGehee says:

    I would have preferred Dr. Steinberg for First Lady over Hillary. Too bad the choice between their respective husbands isn’t so easy.

  3. chris says:

    There is of course the semi-precedent of Mrs Blair (or Cherie Booth Q.C. as she prefers to be known professionally) in the UK. Ms Booth has continued a stellar career as a lawyer for the last seven years, in some cases representing clients who were appealing against government administrative decisions. She also earns much more money than the Prime Minister.

  4. richard says:

    “The wives of presidents and presidential candidates have come under great scrutiny for longer than I can remember. Certainly, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy were major public figures.”

    I would say it goes back to Mary Todd Lincoln.
    She was the first First Lady to establish the position as a type of Office.

    Eceryone knows the story, that she went insane after Lincoln was shot or that she was always insane. But in the past 20 years or so researchers have shown that she was hated by both sides of the party for being such an intentionally direct and very public figure.

    Her so called abnormal spiritualism ( calling the dead around a candle- dream tripping etc.) was a very common practice by women in all of America at the time.

    Her direct involvment with helping freed slaves get on their feet and becomeing independent, brought here scorn from both sides of the aisle, everyone wanted her out just as much as they wanted Lincoln himself out.

    When she was commited to a mental institution, (by her own son)there were laws put in place to restrict family members from commiting each other because it was so common at the time and often bogus. The doctor who recommended the jury lock her up never even met her before. The jury took only 15 min. to decide and in the time she was locked up she never received treatment of anykind.

    So I would certainly say, first lady politics started with Lincoln.

  5. Paul says:

    This is another example of the reaction to an event being bigger than the event. Anytime there is a new face running for office we get the obligatory biographical stories about the whole family. That’s all this is. The fact that she shuns the spot light is newsworthy since it looks like her husband has a shot to get the nomination. For possibly the first time, I agree with Kevin Drum chapter and verse.

    People magazine is a perennial best seller because people are interested in well, people. You’ll never confuse me for a NYT apologist, but this is a legitimate story. Boring, but legit.

  6. richard says:

    NYT’s in on the holy wing conspiracy?

  7. joy says:

    I used to pass by Dr. Steinberg’s office all of the time in Vermont. She works in an old creamery turned into office suites in the, you guessed it, the Creamery Building on Route 7 in Shelburne VT.

    What I found amazing is that even after Dean started to campaign, she didn’t remove her name from the roadside sign.

  8. A healthy marriage is a partnership — two equals, each with a variety of skills, talents and interests that (hopefully) complement those of the other. Ideally, each partner employs those skills, talents and interests towards common agreed-upon goals, and each partner looks out for the best interests of the other.

    In many cases, and perhaps in this one, one partner is perhaps more self-involved than partnership-involved. This is, unfortunately, a rising trend in modern marriages and, I would venture to guess, a primary reason why more than half of American marriages fail.

    More and more, we Americans seem to accept that our First Ladies have quasi-legitimate formal political roles. In the case of married candidates, while we may only cast a vote for President, the truth is that when the dust settles we get the bonus of an un-elected key player in the White House with significant influence. That being the case, and given the grave importance of the Presidential position, I think it is reasonable for voters to weigh the strength or weakness of that influence and available information about what that person thinks about various issues.