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Women Know

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I've never been much of a believer in historical theories about the Indispensable Man. There may be some examples -- Washington, Lincoln, Moses -- but they are few. But the indispensable woman, I believe in. Call it Greenberg's Law: Women are the innately superior sex. My theory may not be backed by any scientific evidence, but it's something every man has surely felt. At least if he's got a lick of sense.

You might even call it a prejudice -- in the sense of Edmund Burke's definition of prejudice as the body of judgments passed on as received wisdom from generation to generation, and that need not be proven anew in every age. The word for it in these fecund Southern latitudes is mother wit. Note that nobody ever called that kind of inner knowledge father wit.

When it comes to great truths, each generation shouldn't have to work them out by itself. They don't have to be written down, any more than the English constitution is. Every boy soon learns that women seem to know intuitively what the weaker male sex may grasp only by effort and education. Which is why it requires marriage and family to civilize the male animal. He needs a woman's tutelage.

Brighter boys learn the lesson of female superiority early; dimmer ones may never catch on. A story: It was homecoming weekend many years ago in Pine Bluff, Ark., and a clump of us stood on Main Street waiting for the black college's high-stepping marching band to come striding by, drum major and majorettes and 76 trombones and all.

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A venturesome little boy in the group stepped off the curb to look way up the street -- where the little girl on the Sunbeam Bread sign, a local landmark, still swings endlessly to and fro. Way in the distance, the boy spotted the prancing majorettes throwing their batons high, higher, highest, catching them on the beat. "Wow!" he exclaimed, returning to report what he'd seen. His conclusion: "Girls have to know so many things!"

Here's another story about the natural wisdom of women, or at least their instinctive suspicion of grand-sounding male plans. It must have been back in early 1974, when Watergate was just a trickle in the news rather than the flood that would sweep away a president and all the president's men.

I was at my desk at the Pine Bluff Commercial when the White House called. I know, I know, buildings don't make phone calls. But I was younger back then, and so naive that when the presidential aide-to-an-aide called, I was much impressed, especially with myself.

It seems I'd written a column in praise of some aspect of Richard Nixon's foreign policy at the time. One of the bigger papers had picked it up, and, Mr. Aide confided, The President had liked it very much. The way he pronounced The President, it was capitalized and italicized. It dang near had a halo around it. What's more, The President had liked the column so much he wanted to know if I'd like to join the White House staff as a speechwriter.

Mr. Aide and I agreed that I'd think it over, and the White House would call me back in a day or so. Not that I was about to leave Arkansas -- I'd already left a couple of times before and learned that I do not thrive above a certain degree of latitude. But I had to tell somebody about the call -- somebody I wanted to impress. It's a male thing, or at least a young male thing. So when lunchtime came, instead of walking down to the diner for a sandwich, I drove home to break the Big News to my wife. Like a puppy dog carrying a prize bone he'd just dug up.

When I told her about the call from the White House, trying to be suitably modest, her response was simple, immediate and to the point:

"Are you crazy?"

In my case, it might have been more accurate to say crazier, since I'd shlepped her off once before for the sake of a job. To Chicago. With our one-year-old in tow, just in time for a record snowfall. The charms of moving "up" in the world had been lost on her ever since.

Of course, the White House never called back. I realized later the call had been what was called a stroke -- as when a politician strokes a columnist by telling him how brilliant he is. The younger the columnist, the more effective it can be. I had to learn as much; women seem to know these things without having to think about them.

It all came back to me on reading a review of the book, "The Politician," by an aide (read: hanger-on, valet, toady and general cover-up man) to John Edwards, who used to be a figure of some note in American politics. If memory serves, he was the vice-presidential nominee on a national ticket one year -- before he became just a figure of fun, the poor sucker. It turns out, like so many of the male persuasion, he had mainly suckered himself. Thanks to the typically masculine combination of ego, folly and over-active glands. And now an aide who had covered for him for a decade -- big surprise -- has written a tell-all book.

Naturally the aide had started off star-struck with his boss. The first time he heard John Edwards deliver his populist spiel, he'd turned to his wife and laid out his grand plan: "This guy going is going to be president some day. ... I'm going to find a way to work for him." And ride all the way to the top with this shining star.

His wife, as wives will, had a different reaction to the oh-so-charismatic senator from North Carolina: none at all. "She looked at me, unimpressed, rolled her eyes, and said, 'Let's go to the beach.' " Which would have been a great career move compared to the 10-year dead end he subjected himself and his family to.

Oh, if I'd only listened to her -- it's a thought any male of a certain age has surely had. More than once. For we're slow learners. Think of any hotshot politician (or, for that matter, financier, sports star or just celebrity in general) who's come a-cropper. Regardless of age, position or politics. Think Mark Sanford. Or Tiger Woods. Or ... well, choose your own example from a long and always growing list.

No male ever goes wrong by seeking the advice of his better five-sixths.

Even the most sober and prudent of us. Consider dry-as-dust Henry Paulson, who was secretary of the Treasury when the Great Panic of '08-'09 was whirling out of control. One weekend he realized all his efforts to save Lehman Brothers would be in vain, and AIG was unwinding fast, too. He felt himself collapsing, too. But he still had enough self-possession to do the sensible thing. As he tells the story in his memoir:

"I knew I had to call my wife. ... 'What if the system collapses?' I asked her. 'Everybody is looking to me, and I don't have the answer. I am really scared.' " She responded immediately -- by citing Timothy 1:7: For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.


I'm telling you, women know.

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