Saturday, January 24, 2004

Spokane

Dean's wife has a life of her own
First ladies shouldn't have to fit a template, Rebecca Nappi says.

Rebecca Nappi
The Spokesman-Review

Until Howard Dean did his Fred Flintstone routine the night of the Iowa caucus, the media were focused on his no-show wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg. Pundits wondered: Where is she? Why isn't she doing more for her husband's campaign?

Dr. Kim Lynch doesn't wonder at all.

"I'd be just like that poor woman," she said. "I'd be hiding out, too."

Kim, my high school buddy, seemed an ideal person to jawbone with about Dr. Judith, because the two have similar lives.
Kim is a surgeon in Boise and married to a doctor. She and her husband have four children, ages 8 through 19. Kim possesses brains and beauty -- she was Marycliff High School's Lilac Princess in 1973 -- and she's also funny and self-deprecating. Perfect.

I tracked Kim down in her office at the Boise Veterans Affairs Medical Center where she works a 40-hour week, considered a part-time job for docs. Kim, who at 48 is just two years younger than Dr. Judith, worked hard to become a surgeon -- a total of nine years of school after college. And she did it in a time when women doctors were just emerging from the novelty phase. Like Dr. Judith, Kim uses her own name in her medical practice.

If her husband ever ran for president (not likely), Kim agreed she and other women doctors of her generation would respond the way of Dr. Judith.

They'd say, "Honey, you go right ahead and run for president. I'll support you, but I really worked hard for this medical degree, and I intend to keep using it to help my patients."

Kim and I also understand longtime journalist Maria Shriver's reluctance to sever ties with NBC just because her husband is governor of California. As Kim said: "You lose your identity if you give up those kinds of things."

Kim and I were amazed to find ourselves even discussing a potential first lady choosing career over her husband's presidential ambitions. Growing up in Spokane in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, we didn't personally know any women doctors or journalists -- though there were a few in town. Most of our mothers stayed home or worked part-time or held jobs as teachers and nurses. Movie stars were the only married women who kept their own names.

And we grew up on Jackie Kennedy, gorgeous Jackie. I look at photographs now of her as first lady and feel in awe of her natural style and grace. I still can't believe that Jackie was only 34 when her husband was assassinated.

In Jackie's life story, however, one footnote often gets overlooked. She was in the early stages of a journalism career when she met JFK. Jackie was an "inquiring photographer" for the Washington Times-Herald when she interviewed her future husband. In the last years of her life, she returned to a career and died a happy and respected book editor.

But Jackie's reign in Camelot set in place the ideal first-lady template. And all subsequent first ladies have been criticized for falling short. Nancy Reagan was nitpicked for shrew-like behavior. Barbara Bush was called on her frumpiness. Hillary was pilloried. Laura Bush has Jackie's gentleness and charm, but she's not as glamorous, nor does she seem to care. I like that about her.

Dr. Judith hasn't spruced up her image, either. In the few times she's appeared in the media, including an interview this week in People magazine, she's favored the same outfit -- black pants and a royal-blue sweater set. She's an attractive woman who hasn't piled on the makeup or updated her no-nonsense hairdo.

Kim, the former "purple princess" as her kids call her, understands completely. There's just no time anymore for fussing with that stuff.

"My hair? I wash it and fluff it up with a comb and go out the door," Kim said. "I always wear the same dress to those Christmas parties. No one ever notices."

The first-lady hand-wringing will continue the entire campaign, I predict, no matter which man gets the Democrats' nod. None of the wives will pass muster, for one reason or another. And Laura Bush will be hard to beat.

I do have a solution for the first-lady dilemma, however. Let's create a new template entirely -- the first-man template. We'll need it four years from now, in the 2008 election. Hey, a girl can dream.

•Rebecca Nappi can be reached at rebeccan@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5496.


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