THE WORST THING about the collapse of the Howard Dean phenomenon is that it cuts short our acquaintance with the most appealing figure to emerge from the Democratic primaries--Dr. Judith Steinberg, as they know her at the office, and after hours, Judy Dean.

The most appealing figure, and the author of the most memorable line: "I'm not a thing person." In third-millennium America! A woman without cable TV, innocent of malls and makeovers, who says that she has everything she wants! Yet no dreary bluestocking, either, or preachy crusader for voluntary simplicity. A career woman, yet no Bobo. A straightforward, serious person whose priorities, by her own telling--and we have no reason to doubt her--are her husband, her son still in high school, and her work.

Her work is a private medical practice that she apparently sees, not as a feminist statement or a means of gaining position, but as a set of personal relationships. "My patients are my patients, and they really depend on me, and I really love it," she told Diane Sawyer in her first TV interview a couple weeks back, explaining her absence from the campaign trail. She makes house calls.

She doesn't fuss with her appearance, and we like her for it. Says Noemie Emery, the conservative writer and connoisseur of feminine style, of Judy Dean in the Sawyer interview, "She was just wearing clothes. I liked her hair. It just hung there. I liked the fact that he gave her a rhododendron and she loved it."

I admit, I'm a little surprised at how warmly Judy Dean is spoken of, as if we'd all been starved for authenticity. From knowing Beltway types and women of the world alike, I've yet to hear a catty remark. I've encountered some puzzlement at Mrs. Dean's near total removal from the public stage, even when her husband was governor of Vermont. But nothing remotely resembling the relentless criticism of every aspect of Hillary Clinton's person and persona.

Instead, I hear real appreciation. Comments one thirtysomething admirer, a Washington journalist, "She's like the smart, nerdy girl who wasn't cool and you could be friends with when you were 17."

Asked about how she'd celebrated her 50th birthday, Mrs. Dean laughed. She told Sawyer, "I don't know, we don't do that much with presents. I think . . . what I always do for my birthday, which is right around Mother's Day, we have a combined celebration and we do a family bike ride. Now May in Vermont, sometimes it's a cold family bike ride, and sometimes it's not, but we usually do a family bike ride with, uh, squished cupcakes in a knapsack and . . . "

Smart, nerdy, and sincere.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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