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Carol Platt Liebau - Columnist

Carol Platt Liebau is a senior member of the editorial board. She is an attorney, political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA, and has appeared on the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN, Orange County News Channel, Cox Cable and a variety of radio programs throughout the United States. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Carol Platt Liebau also served as the first female managing editor of the Harvard Law Review. [go to Liebau index]


A Tale of Two Spouses
The Irreplaceable Role of the Political Wife

[Carol Platt Liebau] 1/19/04   

Amid a week that held little good news for Howard Dean, it may be one “soft” story from early in the week that helps provide some of the best insight on the sudden collapse, or at least the rapid deceleration, of what seemed like the former Vermont governor’s inevitable march to the Democratic presidential nomination.

The January 13 New York Times article on Judith Steinberg (“Dean’s Wife Shuns Politics”) is well worth reading because it addresses an issue that has been rarely discussed until now: Why Dr. Steinberg has been almost completely disengaged from her husband’s campaign for the presidency.

It's hard, and often unfair, to criticize people for their family arrangements -- especially when the only two people who really know what's going on in a marriage are the spouses themselves. As a general matter, with people whose children are old enough to have achieved at least a measure of independence, it really isn’t anybody's business how a couple organizes their life together.

But then again, most of the time, half of the couple isn't seeking to become the most powerful man in the world. And so, yes, it does seem strange that, according to The New York Times, Judith Steinberg has been "simply too busy to get involved in the campaign" -- because, among other reasons, she is participating in a bimonthly book group. Indeed, even the Dean machine must have realized that, rightly or not, Dr. Steinberg’s absence seemed discomfortingly unusual. And so, yesterday afternoon, Howard Dean introduced his wife on the campaign trail for the first time (where, interestingly enough, she identified herself as “Judy Dean”), in a last-minute bid to generate some positive “buzz” around his candidacy in the final hours before the Iowa caucuses.

Howard Dean has been characterizing his spouse as simply "uninterested" in politics. But if her attitude is merely one of disinterest, she must be the most selfish woman in the world. Put it this way – one need not have a keen interest in astrophysics in order to be willing to tolerate a significant level of boredom or inconvenience to help one’s husband win the Nobel Prize in that field. The same goes for politics.

No, Dr. Steinberg's consistent refusal to participate in her husband’s career suggests that her attitude toward politics could more accurately be described as "animus." But if that's the case, and she really hates the process all that much, what does it say about Howard Dean that he's willing to go ahead and run anyway?

Even taking the story at face value, his wife's disengagement has been a real drawback for Dr. Dean -- and not just for the reasons outlined in The New York Times article, i.e. that a spouse's participation "humanizes" a candidate. It's because if Dr. Dean reaches the "next level" -- as Democratic nominee, much less President -- he will be surrounded by people with their own agendas. And that’s when having an involved and dedicated wife becomes a huge advantage.

If we learned anything from the Clinton presidency, it was that having a First Lady with political ambitions and an agenda of her own constitutes a significant drawback for a sitting President. Every President, however capable and devoted his advisors, needs at least one person whose only order of business is ensuring his personal well-being, political and otherwise. Without such a helpmate, the candidate (or official) loses an invaluable source of disinterested advice, helpful insight and constructive criticism.

Ironically, Dr. Dean’s politically underinvolved wife leaves him with the same kind of deficit that the political overinvolvement of President Clinton’s wife created – the absence of feedback from a partner unselfishly and wholeheartedly committed to his success, without conflict or calculation. Indeed, in a strange congruency, Hillary Clinton and Judith Steinberg have more in common than would first meet the eye.

But whatever Dr. Steinberg and Senator Clinton’s shortcomings, they can’t be related to party affiliation, for the best political wife in the country today is, like them, a Democrat – Maria Shriver. Like Hillary Clinton, she has “stood by” her husband when he was accused of sexual improprieties, but in contrast to the Senator, one has the sense it’s because she believes in her spouse – not because she is desperate to gain or retain power. And like Judith Steinberg, Maria Shriver has created a career of her own that she apparently loves, but yet has been willing to sacrifice it, at least temporarily, for the sake of her husband’s political ambitions without asking anything for herself.

California’s new First Lady helped save her husband’s gubernatorial candidacy, and after his election, she rose again to the occasion in order to help Arnold Schwarzenegger broker a compromise with the legislature early in his term – a deal which provided at least the perception of success and progress early in the Governor’s term. Maria Shriver’s devotion to her husband isn’t some retrograde throwback to the 1950’s, as many feminists would have us believe. Instead, it’s a truly heartening example of selflessness in a world where, too often, women have been taught that they must be selfish in order to prove themselves truly “liberated.”

The people of California are lucky to have Arnold Schwarzenegger as their Governor – in large part because Maria Shriver is watching his back. If only the people of Vermont had been as fortunate . . .

And certainly, as he awaits the results of the Iowa caucus today, Howard Dean may well wonder if he would be breathing easier now, had he enjoyed the benefit of his wife’s insight and participation a little earlier in his campaign for the presidency.

CRO columnist Carol Platt Liebau is a political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA.

copyright 2004


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