What They Care About, out in America

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

December 06, 1991|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA. — Charleston, South Crolina -- A White House adviser, I see by the New York Times, has been fairly trembling with anxious anticipation.

''The whole town,'' he said Monday, ''is waiting for the other shoe to drop.'' The adviser was talking about reports that John Sununu, the president's chief of staff, was about to get the old heave-ho.

Well, on Tuesday Mr. Sununu did get the old heave-ho. He resigned in a graceful letter remembering the fun times but acknowledging the not-so-fun times. As a pit bull or a pussycat, he would always be at the president's service. Said the gentleman as he was leaving Air Force One, hereafter to fly in coach, ''It really has been great!!!''

The story merited scarcely one bang-mark, let alone three. This was a peculiarly Washington story. Here in Charleston, the loveliest city on the seacoast, no one was waiting breathlessly for White House shoes to drop. To the best of my knowledge, few Charlestonians give a Rhett Butler damn about the future of John Sununu. Here in the boondocks Mr. Sununu doesn't matter.

I am talking about perspective. In recent weeks I have been traveling in the South and Midwest, and I have been learning all over again what a provincial, myopic, self-centered city is the capital of the nation.

For a few days the Washington press corps will be completely absorbed in the Sununu story and in the ''disarray'' in the Oval Office. What will become of Mr. Sununu? Who will fill his vital role? Who will run the Bush campaign? You would think the job of chief of staff ranks with the presidency itself. The White House atmosphere, says the Times, is ''highly charged.''

Well, well, well. Beyond the Washington Beltway, out where the real America begins, I find no evidence of deep concern about such peripheral matters.

People are talking about unemployment. They are concerned about crime, especially the mindless, wanton crime that stems from drug abuse. They are worried about the high cost of living, about the high cost of a college education, about the burden of taxes. In my travels I sensed increasing impatience at programs of public welfare. Without any coaching on my part, many strangers expressed dismay at the decline of old moral values.

I met a furniture dealer from Iowa. He was largely concerned about the quality of education in our public schools. He was more immediately concerned about Christmas sales. Flying from somewhere to somewhere, I sat by the sales manager of a small company making truck parts. He was worried about his job.

Washington is only 500 miles north of Charleston, little more than an hour by air, but the capital might as well be 10,000 miles away. It was front-page news here a few days ago when a carriage horse suddenly panicked and went galloping down Meeting Street at runaway speed. The horse's name was Duke. Make something of the coincidence if you will.

The world as it is seen from a bench in Battery Park is not the world as seen from the Press Club bar. The local Post & Courier keeps South Carolinians well informed on world news of importance. It is not as if the boondocks were on some other planet.

I believe this is true elsewhere. Students at the College of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, where I recently lectured, impressed me with their grasp of things that really matter. They were interested in the coming presidential election, but if I had dwelled upon the mechanics of polling, fund raising, speechwriting and scheduling, I would have lost them.

The farther one gets from Washington, the better the perspective. We bench sitters talk mostly of the weather, the blossoming winter camellias and the Palm Beach trial of Willy Kennedy Smith. If we talk politics at all, it is to speculate on the re-election next year of Sen. Ernest ''Fritz'' Hollings. When people talk about Congress, they talk in tones of contempt for the institution. They resent congressional perquisites. ''Who do these guys think they are?''

It is better this way. From a distance the great disarray within the White House seems not so great at all. Who today remembers John Ehrlichman? Bob Haldeman? Don Regan? Howard Baker? They too were presidential chiefs of staff. They came and went. Life goes on.

Out in the boonies we don't wait for White House shoes to drop. When they fall, they fall as silently as slippers.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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