Can Judy Dean give our "thing culture" an extreme makeover?

She obviously doesn't give much thought to her hair, wardrobe or makeup. And because she doesn't, neither do we.

Arianna Huffington
January 29, 2004 12:09AM (UTC)

Dr. Dean for president!

No, I'm not talking about Howard, who finished second in New Hampshire -- 13 points behind John Kerry.

I'm talking about the other doctor in the house of Dean -- Judith Steinberg Dean, M.D.

Like most of America, I got my first chance to judge Judy during her stanch-the-Iowa-bleeding sit-down with Diane Sawyer last week.


I watched the interview with my 14-year-old daughter and found myself touched in a way I rarely have been during the countless hours I've spent watching this kind of political theater.

"Why are you tearing up, Mom?" my daughter asked me near the end of the segment.

I had to think about it. What about Mrs. Dean's decidedly unpolished responses had gotten to me?


Then it hit me: the birthday rhododendron. Sawyer had found it next to impossible to believe that Judy Dean had actually been pleased when her husband had given her one of the perennial shrubs for her 50th birthday.

"It's not exactly hearts and flowers," chided Diane.

"I'm not a very 'thing' person," explained Judy. "Everything I want, I have ... I'm not that interested in things."


And that was that. A simple yet sincere summons to simplicity.

Let Wesley Clark have the endorsement of the Material Girl; Howard Dean has the support of the Unacquisitive Girl.

One of the reasons I was so moved by Judy Dean's heartfelt declaration of independence from our Thing Culture is that it reminded me so much of my mother -- who was the ultimate nonthing person.


When she died, she left behind no prized possessions -- not surprising considering her habit of giving such things away. For instance, there was the time we tried to give her a second watch for her birthday -- only to have her give it to someone else two days later.

"I already have a watch," she explained.

People like my mother and Judy Dean stand in stark contrast to our national obsession with consumption. Our "Supersize Me!" society has so elevated the manufactured over the meaningful that when somebody dares question the value of our collective covetousness we react like they've impugned the legitimacy of the scriptures.


In their rejection of our fixation on the fashionable, these anti-Trumps suddenly become the little boy pointing out that despite our designer clothes, top-of-the-line SUVs, and plasma TVs, we're really just a bunch of emperors in expensive birthday suits, trying unsuccessfully to buy our way to happiness.

Consumer debt is at an all-time high as are the number of people filing for bankruptcy -- 1.5 million in 2002. Americans are now spending 14 percent of their income to pay off debt while less than 2 percent of their earnings is being saved. Who can worry about retirement or a rainy day when Best Buy is having a sale on digital camcorders?

Of course, this culturewide shopping spree is happening on the watch of our conservative leaders. Conservatism is supposed to stand in clear counterpoint to the excesses of the counterculture -- with responsibility, self-discipline, and living within one's means replacing the "if it feels good, do it" ethos.


But George Bush and his corporate cronies have sacrificed these values on the altar of consumption: "If it feels good, buy it!"

What also struck me about the not very thingy Judy Dean was the sense of contentment and comfort she radiated with who she is -- and who she isn't.

She obviously doesn't give much thought to her hair, wardrobe or makeup. And because she doesn't, and doesn't with such confidence, neither do we.

Ever since her surprisingly ready-for-Prime-Time appearance, I've lost count of the number of men who have told me that they have fallen for Mrs. Dean.


The words I keep hearing them use to describe their new crush is "authentic."

Despite being shoved onto the national stage in the midst of a presidential campaign -- an intensely contrived environment in which image-consulting teams decide at what moment to switch from suit to sweater, and damage control professionals vet every word, gesture and fashion accoutrement -- she was unquestionably just being herself.

In a political atmosphere dizzy from spin, how refreshing to come across a simple red -- or simple blue -- sweater-wearing wife, mother and professional woman so willing to speak not from a set of pre-packaged talking points, but from her heart.

"I have a medical practice, which I love, but I also love Howard," she explained when asked why, after all this time, she'd finally decided to step out of the political shadows. "I think he'd make a terrific president."


And she'd make one hell of a first lady.

As the mother of two teenage daughters, struggling to help them navigate an Extreme Makeover world where Botox is the new nectar of the goddesses, I can't tell you how much I would love to have a very different kind of role model front and center in the national spotlight. One who loves her job, puts her family first, doesn't equate split ends with mortal failure, doesn't mind getting a rhododendron for her birthday, and doesn't even have cable TV.

Far from trying to emulate the airbrushed perfection promoted on the Style Network, Judy Dean doesn't even get it on her set.

Our world can learn a lot from her. I know I sure can.


Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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