The Case of the Disappearing Political Wife

Two cheers for the invisible Dr. Mrs. Dean


"Where is Mrs. Dean?" demands the headline on The Drudge Report, signaling not simply a painfully slow news day but an ostensibly urgent inquiry about the possible future of the republic. The page features a cropped vertical shot of the rageoholic governor being tailed—or is it stalked?— by his elusive wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, who is less notable for being an M.D. than for her utter invisibility during her husband's presidential campaign. Drudge links to a New York Times story filled with the advice that if the Drs. Dean want to be writing prescriptions from the White House come next January, then they better start showing up at the same rallies. Preferably holding hands. And calling each other shmoopy and buttercup.

After perfunctorily granting that some folks see Steinberg Dean, who reportedly maintains a busy practice as a "country doctor," as a "role model for independent women balancing careers and children," the Times article spills most of its ink warning about the dangers posed to politicians by absent spouses. To wit:

[Some] in the campaign increasingly regard [Steinberg Dean's] absence as a potential liability for a candidate who is known for his reluctance to discuss his personal life or upbringing… Voters 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 ceremony of his brother's remains in Hawaii…

"The other candidates will come around with their wives and say 'here we are,' and then there will be these questions," said Lewis Gould, a University of Texas historian emeritus who is editing a biography series, "Modern First Ladies." "This is the most important office in the world and you ought to have an interest that your husband is doing it. So, where are you?"

Well, we already know where Steinberg Dean is: somewhere in the Green Mountain State, doing whatever it is that country doctors do. The question really is, Should we care where Mrs. Dean—or any other candidate's spouse—is?

The short answer is no. The less we see of Dr. Dean, Medicine Woman, whoever is squiring Carol Moseley-Braun these days, and whatever Friendster floozy Dennis Kucinich has tricked into paying for his dinner on a given night, the better. The same goes, naturally, for First Lady Laura Bush, who is strangling whatever small pleasure still lives in poetry by threatening to talk about it at White House symposia.

Our aversion to high-profile first-spouse hopefuls is partly to avoid such grimly nauseating eroto-political spectacles as that shudder-inducing moment from the 2000 Democratic National Convention that was instantly dubbed "The Kiss." It's partly to relieve us from the bathos of spousal testimonials to the goodness—nay, greatness—of their mate, poorly acted moments that struggle to rise to the level of credibility evinced in a George Kennedy pitch for Breath Assure. And it's partly to forego any possible variations on what might be called the Kitty Dukakis question as the presidential debates loom larger on the horizon.

But mostly it's because consorts are a relic of monarchy and, as such, have no proper place in a republic, any more than inherited titles, prima nocta, or tax-free living. That's the real reason why Americans have always, deep-down, suffered First Ladys rather than embraced them—something that will still hold true when the U.S. finally coughs up its own answer to the most famous Mr. Mom of modern politics, Dennis Thatcher.

Cast back to that glorious moment in 17th century England, when Oliver Cromwell and his cronies killed King Charles I and established, however temporarily and imperfectly, what was effectively the first modern republic in history. While that attempt to create a representative government failed miserably—Cromwell became every inch the tyrant he helped depose—it cast a long shadow over the American experiment that got cooking a century and a half later.

One of the things that so irked those trailblazing, small "r" republicans (who included John Milton among their number) was precisely that Charles lavished attention (and tax money) on his queen, Henrietta Maria, including the elaborate staging of court masques and other spectacles that used her, in the words of one good—nay, great—scholar, as "a key component of royalist propaganda." The king's public display of his marriage was one way that he legitimated his rule while literally lording it over his subjects and soaking them for more and more booty (it didn't help that Henrietta Maria was French, Catholic, and widely believed to be shaping policy) . Back to the scholar:

Such expansive use of the monarchical sphere of publicity paved the way for republicans to zero in on the "twins," "CARLOMARIA" as a focal point for their complaints (Carew, 172). As Milton wrote, "a king must be ador'd like a Demigod, with a dissolute and haughtie court about him, of vast expense and luxury, masques, and revels, to the debauching of our prime gentry, both male and female . . . " (Readie and Easie Way, 336). In particular, the presence of a queen ("in most likelihood outlandish and a Papist") and a queen mother are held responsible for running up the cost of a court intended to rival Heaven's. "Together," he contends, "their courts and numerous train; then a royal issue, and ere long severally their sumptuous courts" multiply the "servile crew, not of servants only, but of nobility and gentry, and of court offices" (336). For Milton, this extravagance and expense is corrosive. It begins with the courtiers themselves and spreads to the polity at large; hence it represents how, for republicans, an excessively represented devotion to the royal consort was akin to allowing "private marital relations to undermine public accountability" (Norbrook, 115).

When Oliver's army took over, one of the things they stressed was that in a republic, the role of the consort and the court should be minimized, both to save money and to underscore that in a representative government leaders were elected. Unlike the consorts of the rulers who preceded her, Elizabeth Cromwell was, like Judith Steinberg Dean, an almost "invisible" character, at least at the beginning of her husband's overlong stint as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Indeed, among republicans it was taken as a sign of Cromwell's personal and ideological corruption that his wife and family became increasingly public during his rule, and essentially indistinguishable from a royal court. Not only did he blow public funds on his daughter's weddings, Elizabeth eventually became the quasi-monarchical "Protectress," and he even named his sad-sack son Richard heir to a government ostensibly opposed to familial succession.

Suspicion of consorts is thus a defining feature of republics. Seen in that light, the refusal by the Deans to play along with a status quo that gave us Nancy Reagan's china-shopping binges and Hillary Clinton's crumbled cookies should be seen as more than just relief from politics as usual. When Gov. Dean says he doesn't intend to drag his wife around "as a prop on the campaign trail," he's hearkening back to one of the foundational, if rarely observed, elements of our form of government.

How can I be so sure? That's easy. My wife says so.