She had reluctantly agreed to talk with a reporter about her husband's presidential run, but she made clear once, then twice: If a patient called, the conversation was over.
Such is the focus of the wife of Democratic contender Howard Dean. Work is not something to be shunted aside for interviews, sidelined for her husband's ambition. Indeed, if Dean, the former governor of Vermont, wins the White House, Steinberg says, her life will go on as before.
"I'll still practice medicine," she says in a demure but firm tone.
Her plan is, simply put, radical. Never in history has the wife of a president pledged herself to a career separate from White House duties and her husband's pursuits.
Hillary Clinton was a high-powered lawyer while Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, but she gave up her practice when he became president. In Washington, she assumed the role of political partner and policy-shaper, expanding on models of previous presidential spouses. Hillary Clinton, like Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, and Eleanor Roosevelt, molded her persona from within the institution.
"What Dr. Steinberg is suggesting would be something entirely new," said Lewis Gould, a retired history professor at the University of Texas and author of "American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy."
But to talk to Steinberg, the idea of not pursuing medicine and instead devoting herself to presidential spouse's traditional duties is what would be radical for her.
In Vermont, she has been a largely unseen public figure. She is intensely invested in her internal medicine practice and has studiously avoided politics, appearing with her husband at official events only at his behest, and then very much in the background.
Steinberg, 50, who goes by Judy Dean in her nonprofessional life, insists her avoidance of the spotlight is not born of shyness. The woman with bright eyes and shoulder-length hair tucked behind her ears hardly seems timid, speaking assertively and brushing off topics she doesn't care to discuss.
The fact is, Steinberg says, she has a life of her own, shaped by a love of family and medicine. Stumping on the campaign trail or hobnobbing at cocktail parties have long been poor seconds to seeing patients in her office with mismatched furniture or whizzing along the Burlington bike trail.
"I am very proud of what my husband does," she says. "But it's not part of what I do."
Yet as emphatic as she is about the kind of first lady she would be, Steinberg offers little detail about how it would work: how she would operate a medical practice under the glare of media attention, how she would resolve the numerous potential ethical or conflict of interest questions that could arise, or how she would juggle the demands of a first lady's social schedule.
She seems taken aback when the topic of security arises. Asked how the Secret Service could leave a president's wife alone with a patient, Steinberg says only: "Oh, I think we can get around that."
People who have closely observed or studied presidential wives are skeptical.
"It's either bold or naive, and I tend to think it's naive," said Paul Costello, a former spokesman for Carter. "I fully understand someone wanting to lead her own life. But the White House is a goldfish bowl, and as others have found out when they've tried to carve a new direction, it's very difficult to do."
Kati Marton, author of "Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History," agreed that Steinberg's idea carries formidable challenges.
"Any first lady who departs too dramatically from tradition runs into resentment," Marton said.
But she noted that a president's wife with the right qualities might make the departure more palatable to the American public. "A woman of great charm and warmth and optimism in that role can work miracles," she said.
Friends say Steinberg is warm and charming, despite her vehement insistence on privacy. And they say she is more than up to the task of retooling the first lady image.
"She would do it in the right way," said Joyce Davis, a friend of Steinberg's from medical school. "She would do it with dignity, and nothing would be compromised."
Steinberg was raised in Roslyn, N.Y., on Long Island, the second of four girls and the daughter of a pioneering career woman. Her mother, a Manitoba native who graduated from a Canadian medical school, served in Canada's military, and moved to New York for a residency in pediatrics, where she met her husband, a fellow resident.
While Steinberg's father, also a doctor, worked late into the night at his gastroenterology practice in Manhattan, Steinberg's mother worked in clinics where night-time calls were minimal.
Steinberg graduated from Princeton University with a major in biochemistry in 1975 and enrolled at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where she met Dean in class while the two worked crossword puzzles.
Dean and Steinberg came from different worlds. Steinberg was raised Jewish and middle-class. Dean was raised Episcopalian; the son of a wealthy Wall Street banker, he split his childhood between Park Avenue and East Hampton.
Steinberg says the differences were not issues; her family embraced Dean, and vice versa.
"My parents just thought he was a terrific guy," Steinberg recalls. "He was very straightforward, very honest, with no pretension."
The two enrolled in residency at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, she one year behind him because he completed an accelerated program at Einstein. They were married by a judge at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City in 1981. Dean opened the internal medicine practice in Shelburne, and Steinberg joined him following a fellowship in hematology begun at McGill University in Montreal and completed at the Vermont medical school.
As Dean delved deeper into politics, first winning a legislative seat in 1982 and the lieutenant governorship in 1986, Steinberg says, she paid little attention. He was still practicing medicine, doing politics part-time.
The situation changed in 1991 when Governor Richard Snelling died, elevating Dean to the state's highest office.
Asked about her memories of the day, Steinberg recounts frantic shift-swapping between herself, Dean, and their partner in the medical practice. When pressed to recall how she felt about her husband's new responsibility, Steinberg seems at a loss.
"I thought it was an important job, and I knew he could do it," she says slowly. "But it really didn't change our lives that much. We didn't have to move, the kids didn't have to change schools, and I didn't have to change my work."
If Steinberg was unmoved by the aura of governorship, she seems equally unwowed by her husband's potential to be elected to the White House. In fact, she seems almost annoyed by expectations that she should be fascinated with the process.
"I don't keep his clippings," she says. "And we don't have cable, so I don't see him on the news very much."
She also has not traveled with him on the campaign trail, which means the two do not see each other for days at a time.
"He calls every night and hopes to catch the kids," she said, referring to their two children, Anne, 19, a sophomore at Yale University living at home this summer, and Paul, 17, a high school senior. "When he's home, he's home. If he comes home on a Sunday at midnight, Monday he'll barbecue and make sure we all sit down and talk."
The campaign, though, has found her. She is in demand for interviews, but largely avoiding them. And when her son this summer was sentenced to a diversion program for helping four friends steal alcohol from a local country club, national press descended. (Steinberg granted an interview to the Globe provided that incident would not be discussed.)
Steinberg says, a bit defiantly, that she has no plans to acquiesce to the public's demands for her time, nor to change her lifestyle. The only full-throated laugh she lets out in an hourlong interview comes in response to a retelling of Mamie Eisenhower's famous quip about her career: "Its name is Ike."
"Each first lady has done it differently," Steinberg says. "And we would have to do it the way that worked for us."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.