forum, n. A public meeting place for open discussion.
Therefore, you’d expect discussion at a candidates’ forum hosted by a Republican women’s club in an economically cleansed sector of Mobile. Unless you’d noticed how the invasion and occupation of Iraq had become liberation. How the installation of a puppet government manipulated by the conquerors constituted freedom and democracy. How the decimation of the populace was sanitized into collateral damage.
Then you’d expect a beauty pageant rather than the advertised forum.
But you might go anyway, hoping for a flub that would allow a question and conversation with those claiming to represent us. A phone call in advance gleaned nothing about which candidates would attend.
If congressman Jo Bonner, running for reelection in a compulsively Republican district, appeared, I had a question for him. If not, I would put it to the local candidates.
It sprang from the recent reports on a careful study across Iraq comparing death rates before W’s attack and since:
A statistically sound survey has found that about 655,000 Iraqis have died as an ongoing result of the March, 2003 invasion. Why do you continue to support George Bush in the continuation of this slaughter?
* * *
As I followed the FORUM signs toward the meeting room, Jo Bonner eased into the parking lot. Was this Divine Intervention on my behalf?
No. Others had already corralled the Higher Powers. The elegant, sprightly woman presiding opened with devotional remarks on the sanctified Republican party, followed by a prayer in the same spirit, followed by the pledge of allegiance, wrapped up by further devotional remarks. The cumulative effect was to weave the party, America, God, conservatism, family, traditional values, president Bush, Jesus, and patriotism into one radiant canopy spreading over the crowd and outward.
She introduced congressman Bonner to speak first, and he oozed in the same vein. The world he sketched contained no wars in the Middle East, no nuclear chicken games in Asia, no mammoth budget deficits in DC, no poverty, no racism, nobody still homeless in the Katrina zone or on the streets of Mobile, nobody without health insurance, no global warming or any other assaults on life’s support systems.
And this cheerful world will stay that way if everyone votes a straight Republican ticket. Nods and smiles all around. Applause followed him toward the door.
Wait, wait! Come back, Jo! This is a forum. I have a question. That’s what I was thinking. Saying it would mark me as someone to shun when the locals spoke.
* * *
It happened that a candidate for state senate is a friend of many years, and we happened to sit together. So I grumbled to him about Bonner ducking out without taking questions, and he said I could ask him one. But, knowing me, when his turn came he talked, and talked, and talked, then sat down.
“You were supposed to call on me for a question,” I said.
“I ran out of time,” he replied with a wink.
* * *
The other candidates for the legislature, sheriff, school board, and whatnot all did the same. Praised the party, extolled conservative values and virtue, flattered the crowd, basked in its adulation, and invited no questions or discussion.
One even proved, inadvertently, that madame chairman could not have ruled my question out of order as irrelevant to local races. Although running for juvenile court judge, he slipped the Middle East into his spiel about his qualifications for the judgeship. His roots are Lebanese, and he took care to tell the receptive crowd that his Christian extended family remaining in Lebanon is being persecuted by Muslims.
He didn’t tarry over any distinguishing terms like radical Muslims or Islamo-fascists that would leave some Muslims untarnished. I am a Christian, you are Christians, Muslims are the enemy, vote for me. That was his message.
* * *
A candidate for the school board provided the comic relief for these proceedings. He didn’t speak; he performed, in the accents and manner of Mayberry. But he wasn’t acting. That’s him. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d dragged Opie onstage to display a typical student. But he did bring a large pumpkin as a prop-something about seeds, nurturing, growth. No dreary educational policy speech from him. It was highly entertaining and the audience was charmed.
My question, too, would have enlivened the event, though in a different way.
* * *
As the forumless forum expired, my friend the state senate candidate suggested that I could pose the question individually at the meet-and-greet around the snack bar. Rather than pester stragglers, I just snagged a bottle of water and departed.
Chugalugging down the road, I saw that the bottle doubles as a campaign trinket. The label says JO BONNER – U.S. CONGRESS.
My first impulse was to treat it like he had treated my desire to ask him a question. Chuck it. Why would I want to keep something advertising him? But suddenly I realized it might have some use.
Several years ago a bottle brought a flickering gleam of fame to a dim lieutenant governor in Montgomery. His title made him the presiding officer of the senate, where a testy partisan spat obliged him to man his post through extended wrangling. He feared that if he left even for a weewee break, he would lose control of the chamber.
So he brought a bottle to use behind the rostrum when nature insisted, which it did, which could not be completely concealed. And he became a nationwide celebrity, briefly.
I’m not seeking fame, but at least my car is now equipped with an emergency bottle, courtesy of Jo Bonner.
DAVID UNDERHILL is an occasional voter in Mobile, Alabama Mobile, Alabama. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.