Punching Judy

By Joan Walsh
January 20, 2004 1:41AM (UTC)
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If Howard Dean comes back to win big in Iowa, will he take a page from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and give a big public thank you to his wife, Judith Steinberg Dean? Maria Shriver, you'll recall, helped the actor overcome allegations that he'd groped his way through Hollywood, and was rewarded with a big election night valentine. Judy Dean's surprise appearance in Iowa on Sunday was designed to refute the charge that voters don't know her husband well enough to elect him president (one subtext of his opponents' attacks, like Dick Gephardt's slashing ad, which asks: "How much do you really know about Howard Dean?") Now that they've seen Judy Dean, though, do Iowans really know her husband any better? Of course not. But Dean's visit probably helped nonetheless. It was particularly nice to watch the happy crowd greeting the shy Vermont doctor like a rock star, cheering and begging her for autographs, after a week when pundits darkly hinted that middle America will never embrace a woman who won't put her husband's political career before her own -- or do something with that long hair! -- as its First Lady.

I've been saddened by the reaction to Judy Steinberg Dean. I've had even liberal, supposedly enlightened friends tell me that her plain, no-makeup look is fine for Burlington and Berkeley, but the rest of America wants its first ladies to show some style. I think that's condescending to Dean, and to the rest of America, and I hope her appearance in Iowa helps put that line to rest. I don't care if she wears makeup; Dean's smile is simply dazzling, the kind that can't be forced or faked. More disturbing, still, has been the reaction from other women, particularly liberal women. I watched Republican National Committee spokeswoman Barbara Comstock tell Fox News on Sunday that she's fine with Judy Dean -- Comstock even defended her as a great mother as well as doctor -- it's liberals like the New York Times' Maureen Dowd who've been piling on. (Note to Howard Dean: You should look to Schwarzenegger for tips on handling Dowd, not just your wife: The actor got himself affectionate coverage by returning Dowd's calls; you got yourself an enemy -- or at least another nasty column -- by not calling Dowd back last week.) Now, I'm sure somewhere the RNC has a roomful of folks doing opposition research on the Deans' marriage, but Comstock made a good point: Many Judy Dean critics have been liberal women. (The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz makes the same point today, although strangely, all but one of the female columnists he quotes strongly defend the unconventional Vermont doctor.)


I hope Dean's Iowa appearance causes at least a temporary break from the columns and news stories raising dark questions about whether America is ready for the Dean marriage, but that may be too much to ask. So far I think the smartest words about Judy Dean have come from a man, the Boston Globe's Peter Canellos: "Judy Dean's reluctant campaign visit may well reassure voters about her love for her husband. But it's odd that her husband's amply evident concern for her didn't do more to satisfy the skeptics." Canellos is right: That Howard Dean is man enough to let his wife do what makes her happy should make voters like him much more, not less.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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