People in the real world untouched by Panetta

June 30, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

At Frank's Seafood, a wholesale fish market near Jessup, Joanne Choate wipes perspiration off her brow and holds up a finger in my direction. "I'll be with you in a minute," she says.

She is standing near the center of the store with some customers, scooping live crabs out of a gigantic tub. The crabs seem irritated -- they wave their claws, they scuttle over each other, they clank against the metal sides of the tub like unruly inmates.

A radio is playing the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love."

L "One more second," Ms. Choate says, as more customers enter.

"No problem," I say.

An employee is spreading ice over a sea bass that seems as long as my thigh, and almost as big around. Another worker is arranging shrimp into neat little columns on a tray. A telephone rings. More customers come and go.

"Don't go away," says Ms. Choate as she hurries past.

Ms. Choate is wearing a heavy rubber apron and big rubber boots. She has the round, open-featured face and strong build of a seafarer. She and her sister have owned and operated Frank's Seafood for over 25 years.

Finally, she has time for a breather and I am able to ask her opinion of Leon E. Panetta. She stares at me.

"You know," I say, "the new White House chief of staff. I'd like to know if he's been on your mind."

She stares at me a moment longer and then begins to laugh. "No," she says. "Frankly, he's the last thing on my mind."

More customers are coming in. The crabs are fidgety. Ms. Choate begins to tap her foot.

"But don't you think his appointment will have a major impact on your life?" I persist.

"Not really," she says, and turns away. "Excuse me, I've got to run."

I cannot say Ms. Choate surprised me, even though President Clinton's appointment Monday of Mr. Panetta as his new chief of staff has been a major media event. Despite the hoopla, most of the people I spoke with yesterday either had never heard of Mr. Panetta or were convinced his appointment would have no effect on their lives.

"What do you care about?" I ask.

"The economy," she answers promptly. "Retail sales. Things are a little better now, but we had a really rough two years and people still aren't buying the way they should."

At a bus stop near the Baltimore Convention Center, Warren Robinson has a similar answer: "Man, I'm worried about putting food on my table and keeping a roof over my head. Don't talk to me about nothing else."

The importance the media attached to the Panetta appointment illustrates why so many people view journalism -- not to mention politics -- as irrelevant. I'd call it an "Inside-the-Beltway story," but that would be misleading. Millions of ordinary men and women living inside the Capital Beltway probably care even less about Mr. Panetta than the people I interviewed.

Fact is, the White House chief of staff is a go-fer, a flunky. The chief of staff may be a high-profile and well-paid underling, but he is still a presidential go-fer.

Having said that, I will admit that there is a potentially important story here: Why is the president shuffling his flunkies about? Is he in a panic because he is said to be dropping in the polls? Is he the type to blame his underlings when things go wrong? Or is this a marketing ploy, a cheap and cynical attempt to convince the public that he will change now that he has replaced one functionary with another?

But nowhere in all of the reams and reams of copy do I find answers to those questions.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, life goes on.

At Lexington Market, a man named Joe Green is leaning against a wall. "I'll tell you what you should report about," he says earnestly, after dismissing the Panetta story with a wave of the hand. "Find out what's wrong with all of these women out here. Find out how come they're acting so funny, all of a sudden."

"Women are acting funny?" I reply.

"Yeah. Like, they don't want to talk to you or go out with you or nothing."

"No problem," I say. And to think, we've been wasting space on Leon Panetta.

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