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Media make the personal political

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Let's go to the videotape.

Oh no, let's not go to the videotape. The best news out of the New Hampshire primary may be that we can now drive a stake in the heart of the videotape.

In the first four days after Iowa, the 15 seconds of Dean's primal scream was played 633 times. I'm no Deaniac but I began to think it was a media plot to turn Dr. Dean into Dr. Strangelove. And I am the media, or some particle thereof.

His second-place finish in the Granite State is a tribute to his fast forward through the requisite 12 steps of political recovery _ from gaffe to self-deprecating humor with stops along the way at Letterman.

But media overkill? The only story that went further over the top was the high-decibel coverage of Judy Dean.

Indeed, before we go barreling into next Tuesday's seven states, couldn't we at least stop and get a grip on the candidate's wife thing? The way the campaign is going now, the one bachelor in this group, Dennis Kucinich, will never get another date.

I met Judy Dean last October in the office where she's known as Dr. Steinberg. I figured that Howard Dean was the kind of doctor who would sit you down, look you in the eye and announce bluntly, "You have cancer." But 10 minutes into my interview with the gentler internist, I had to repress an urge to share my cold symptoms.

She was and is a style-free, guile-free zone. The real McCoy, a nice, centered person. The wife of one doctor, the daughter of two others, she lit up talking about medicine and seemed blithely unaware that going about her business as usual was unusual.

When I got back in the car, I told my husband that she was walking into a propeller. I just didn't think it would start up this soon. In the days before Iowa, the labels kept piling on: "publicity-shy," "private," "elusive," "invisible," "crunchy Vermont hippie," "Greta Garbo of would-be first ladies."

She was portrayed as someone who "refused" to campaign, "won't be bothered" to join Howard, as if she were staying home nursing grievances instead of patients. Imagine the shock of viewers when she turned out to be _ ta da _ cable-free, cupcake-eating, makeup averse and n-n-normal.

But this isn't just about judging Judy. The political spouses of my lifetime range from the repressed Pat Nixon to the two-for-one Hillary Clinton. The women married to this year's Democratic candidates fill a Rolodex of female choices and juggling contests. They range from lawyer and mom Elizabeth Edwards to military partner and mom Gert Clark.

The wives of New Hampshire's top two are as different as a dab of blush-on and a dose of Botox. In fact, the attention on Judy Steinberg Dean took it off Teresa Heinz Kerry. For a long time the focus was on Teresa's money and opinions and whether she was, in media-speak, a loose cannon. A piece in the New Yorker described the Kerry marriage as so mysterious that the only explanation was _ yikes _ love.

The good news is that we now have a range of models for political wifedom. The bad news is that every choice becomes a target for sniping.

I once wrote that the only way a first lady could have her own job was if she were a brain surgeon. Only then could she leave the West Wing, open a cranium and come home for dinner without incurring public criticism. Nobody would trash her clothes _ surgical green _ and her beeper could go off in the middle of a boring state dinner. (Is it too late for Judy Dean to change her specialty?)

Today, the fixation on the political spouse is justified on the grounds that the personal is political. But that slogan was first coined to remind us that personal issues like child care had political solutions. Now it has been morphed to focus on the personal life _ the wife _ of a politician.

We do know something about the candidate by knowing his family. But what? The Mrs. Dean, Kerry, Clark, Edwards and Lieberman are all married to candidates and are all different. There isn't a "prop" in the group and they are more than meat tenderizer to soften and humanize their husbands for public consumption.

If New Hampshire is any gauge, voters may be getting this before the media get it. Their curiosity about the candidates' wives is balanced by a belief that each woman should choose her own way. Maybe this year we can do this right. After all, it isn't brain surgery.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group