Imagine a Thanksgiving dinner where only your least simpatico, most judgmental relatives show up, where the conversation veers between religious proselytizing and tearful mawkishness, where no alcohol is drunk and no food served, and where even the pumpkins decorating the tabletop are made of plastic. This largely sums up the so-called "Thanksgiving Family Forum," which on Saturday drew six Republican presidential candidates to a church sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, for a whole lot of sermonizing and damned little fun. Mitt Romney wisely elected to decline the invitation from forum sponsor Bob Vander Plaats, head of the controversial conservative group Family Leader. Jon Huntsman wasn't invited. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum all took part.
The "Thanksgiving Family Forum" was formatted not as a debate, but rather as a series of values-oriented conversational topics introduced by Fox News pollster Frank Luntz. Luntz deliberately sought to minimize conflict among the participants, steering them toward collegial discussions of moral and religious philosophy. The outcome was a program very different from the recent round of cable news debates, far more personal in feel, and in many ways more revealing. Whether the revelations helped or hurt the candidates lies in the eye of the beholder.
It's a shame that C-SPAN had to cancel its coverage of the forum, because this gathering of the Republican hopefuls very much deserves to be seen, if only for its weirder moments. The proceedings got off to a supremely peculiar start, when all five male candidates took their seats at the faux Thanksgiving table, as Michele Bachmann scurried around with a pitcher and poured each a glass of water. "I've poured a lot of water in my time," she joked, but the image on the screen suggested a situation not all that comedic in this day and age.
In a sense, Bachmann's assumption of water duties proved emblematic of the entire enterprise. The discussion seemed to be taking place in an America straight out of Leave It To Beaver, a throwback to the days when moral issues were as black and white as the sitcoms. Even the live audience cutaways appeared to have been teleported in from a distant era, depicting as they did a virtually lily-white crowd filling the pews.
Moderator Luntz laid the groundwork for an alarming number of touchy-feely candidate moments, which were simultaneously fascinating and uncomfortable to observe. Both Herman Cain and Rick Santorum could barely finish recounting their personal tragedies; at one point, Rick Perry grabbed Cain's shoulder in a show of manly support. Bachmann's dramatic tale of a family in crisis unfolded in somewhat less lachrymose fashion, climaxing in a Horatio Alger, up-by-the-bootstrap payoff. Even Ron Paul ventured into the land of self-revelation, though the personal failing he cited is that he hates watching himself on television.
If Newt Gingrich feels the least bit under-qualified to lecture others about matters of personal morality, such reticence never manifested itself in this forum. Like his rivals, he jumped on the atonement bandwagon long enough to admit that he had caused pain to those around him. With typical Gingrich self-inflation, he confessed that despite being "remarkably successful," he had felt emotionally hollow inside.
Throughout the event, Perry worked hard to come off as the biggest, baddest Bible-thumper in the bunch. But competition for that title is stiff among this year's Republicans. It is nearly impossible to out-Jesus the likes of Bachmann and Santorum, and Perry could not quite strike the right level of sincerity to make his case. Still, he didn't say anything inordinately stupid, and he displayed some of the old cowboy charm we haven't seen for awhile--for Rick Perry these things count as triumphs.
Although this forum offered plenty of red meat to social conservatives, many of the candidates' positions will hold little appeal beyond the evangelical churches of Iowa. In response after response, the participants lapsed into predictable disquisitions about the evils of the left, the inalienable rights of embryos, the horror of gay couples wanting to adopt orphans, the perfidy of poor people receiving health insurance, and the relentless persecution of Christians in America. Separation of church and state? Not for this gang.
The Republicans on stage at the "Thanksgiving Family Forum" were extremely eager to point fingers at the sinners lurking all around them. Perhaps the real sin could be found right at that phony dinner table--it's called pandering.