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Bowling for Controversy

By Russ Smith | Posted 1/21/2004

As someone who strongly sup-ports George W. Bush's re-election bid, I'm following the Democrats' frenetic, and amusingly squalid, battle for the party's presidential nomination with a measure of detachment. Should one of the candidates defeat Bush in November, I'd be hard-pressed to pick the lesser of evils: Sen. Joe Lieberman, perhaps, wouldn't be as destructive as his rivals.

It doesn't matter all that much who the eventual standard-bearer is since the election will be a referendum on Bush and his policies since January 2001. It'd be a delight to see Gen. Wesley Clark prevail against his rivals, if only because he's received the dubious endorsement of Michael Moore, the faux-populist author and filmmaker who had a curious reaction to the terrorism of Sept. 11. Moore posted this message on his Web site one day after the attacks: "Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, D.C., and the planes' destination of California--these were place that voted AGAINST Bush!"

That's a GOP commercial already in the can.

Anyway, what I find quite curious about the current primary campaign, more than the advertising attacks and smear tactics that are traditional in politics, is why The New York Times assigned a hit-job on Dr. Judith Steinberg, Howard Dean's 50-year-old wife. It's fairly clear that the Democratic establishment, which includes much of the media, is nervous that Dean could suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of Bush and his well-financed Republican machine, and a nominee such as Sen. John Kerry or Rep. Dick Gephardt would be safer than the unpredictable former Vermont governor. But going after his wife? That's gutter-ball politics.

The Jan. 13 Times front-page article, written by Jodi Wilgoren, was a thumbs-down profile of the publicity-shy Steinberg, who hasn't joined her husband on his grueling tour of town meetings, pancake breakfasts, debates, and bull roasts to (successfully) garner the blessing of luminaries such as Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and Tom Harkin. So what? I find Steinberg's desire to continue her medical practice and stay at home with the couple's teenage son entirely reasonable, and far preferable to Bill Clinton's boast in 1992 that by electing him the country would also receive the services of his wife, Hillary. "Two for the price of one," was one of Clinton's jaunty slogans, and when Hillary led the ultimately doomed drive to socialize national health care in the early '90s, it was apparent he wasn't kidding.

Wilgoren writes: "During Dr. Dean's two years of relentless campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dr. Steinberg has stood by her husband's side exactly once, at his official announcement speech here [Burlington, Vt.] in June. . . . She has never been to Iowa." (Obviously feeling the pressure of internal focus groups and dipping poll numbers, last Sunday Dean--or his handlers--prevailed upon his wife to make a brief appearance in Davenport, Iowa, where she hugged the candidate and thanked potential voters.)

The Times reporter goes on to quote a number of "political experts," all of whom believe that Steinberg's reluctance to campaign with her husband (who's said, in a typically unfortunate choice of words, that he wouldn't treat his wife as a "prop") could be damaging to Dean's candidacy should he run against Bush. Steinberg's insistence, "I couldn't be more supportive, but I don't show my support by traveling with him. I'd rather be seeing patients," just doesn't add up for Wilgoren, and so she adds a read-between-the-lines passage suggesting the couple's marriage might be in trouble.

She writes, "Voters [unspecified] also have begun to ask about a marriage in which the partners are so often apart--she skipped Dr. Dean's birthday-party fund-raiser, the family-oriented Renaissance Weekend, even the emotional repatriation of his brother's remains in Hawaii."

I'm with Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manager, who told the Washington Post's Ann Gerhart in a Jan. 18 piece (the Times' article spawned a number of copycat mewlings about Steinberg), "If she's not a closer, and can't interest people and share about her husband, then she is doing the right thing by keeping her day job. And I respect that. Anyone should respect that."

Besides, as Wilgoren reports, Dean and his wife talk by phone nightly, going over his speeches and jokes, as well as the more mundane details of their domestic life, such as dry cleaning and the day-to-day activities of their two kids. Dean, who calls his wife "Sweetie," is matter of fact in saying that Steinberg's "happiness and satisfaction" is more important to him than having her kiss babies and shaking hands with union volunteers in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and beyond.

As a citizen, I don't care about the views of a president's spouse or children. The personal lives of the Bush twins, Chelsea Clinton, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, and Judith Steinberg--if it should come to that--are none of my business. Or that of The New York Times.

Contact Russ Smith at MUG1988@aol.com.

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