Thank goodness Mrs. Reagan went to the summit so we ladies would have something to read about and wouldn't skip through the newspaper directly to "Hints from Heloise." Tea with Mrs. Gorbachev is the kind of human-interest story American women will be clucking about over the clotheslines for weeks.
This analysis of the reading tastes and interests of the fairer sex comes to us courtesy of White House chief of staff Donald Regan, who is not, to put it mildly, a charter member of the National Organization for Women. Regan is widely credited with being the driving force behind the dismissal of Margaret Heckler from her job as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, thereby getting rid of one of the little ladies serving in the cabinet. Running the country is men's work, for heaven's sake.
Men are interested in serious stuff. Women are interested in teas, not in the weighty stuff of the summit: the stuff that might have bearing on the survival of our families. "They're not . . . going to understand throw-weights or what is happening in Afghanistan or what is happening in human rights," Regan said, discussing the appeal of the First Lady's teas at a pre-summit interview. "Some women will, but most women -- believe me, your readers for the most part if you took a poll -- would rather read the human-interest stuff of what happened."
And you thought reruns of "Father Knows Best" were only available on cable.
We don't understand what happened in Afghanistan? We are too simple-minded to comprehend human rights? Were they so tough for Regan to fathom that he thinks they're simply beyond us?
To be fair, I will confess that I didn't know the difference between "throw-weight" and "payload" until a few years ago when I read a book published in connection with the Ground Zero movement. And I still feel a lot more comfortable talking about the relative merits of various cars than the differing functions of various missiles. But so, I submit, do most men.
Dr. Anne Cahn, executive director of the Committee for National Security, a bipartisan educational group that wants to moderate the arms race, has been running conferences around the country for four years that are designed to educate women about national security and arms control. "The committee has put on four conferences in Washington and eight around the country," she says. "None of them have ever talked down to the women. Most of the speakers have been women.
"For people to understand that we have 6,000 times the megatonnage of all the megatonnage of the Second World War, of all the bombs dropped, doesn't take them that long. For people to understand the technical vocabulary takes longer. It's like learning a foreign language. It certainly can be done by women as well as men.
"Take the issue of Star Wars. You don't have to understand all the exotic technologies that are being proposed. What you need to understand is that you are talking about a system where a one-percent failure rate could be catastrophic and there's no system, whether it's a computer program for a home computer or a computer program for the airline industry, that works 100 percent the first time it's tried." The Strategic Defense Initiative, she says, "has to work 100 percent the first time it's tried and that's impossible. When you're talking about 10,000 incoming missiles, a 1 percent failure rate could wipe out the United States or the Soviet Union.
"Those people who make statements like Regan's make those statements because they want to retain the priesthood of the cognoscenti and to do that they need to make the issue unnecessarily complex and technical. The arms race is not fundamentally a technological race. It's fundamentally a rivalry between two great nations and women can understand that fact just as well as men."
Cahn has been working in the national security field since 1971, when she got her PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was the chief of the social impact staff in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Carter administration and subsequently worked in the Defense Department. It's a safe bet she understood "throw-weight" long before Regan did.
Why, if he plays his cards right, she might even invite him to tea. She could explain that we ladies just devoured the coverage of Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Gorbachev's tea parties, but we also followed the news about the other "human-interest stuff." The stuff about trying to avoid a nuclear war. It would just wreak havoc with our social calendars, and we can't have that.