When the White House Conference on Families was postponed last year over fears that it would arouse pre-election conflicts over abortion, homosexuality and welfare, many people thought it was dead.
Now, just 13 months later, the conference is moving forward with President Carter's blessing, but with a somewhat altered format that probably will keep conflicts buttoned down.
It has a young and energetic chairman, former representative Jim Guy Tucker (D-Ark), who earned good marks in his one term in the House (1977-79).
It has an able and well-liked executive director, John Carr, who is in good standing with the civil rights, labor, and Roman Catholic communities.
Catholic criticism of the initial executive director, Patsy Fleming, who was divorced, helped lead to the collapse of earlier conference plans. There were reports that to mollify that criticism, Joseph A. Califano Jr., then secretary of health, education and welfare, had insisted that Fleming take a Catholic codirector. Carr, the new executive director, is Catholic, white, from an intact family and has worked closely with labor, civil rights and women's groups in the past.
The conference also has five widely known deputy chairmen, Coretta Scott King, New York Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo, Texas social work professor Guadaloupe Gibson, Detroit City Councilwoman Maryann Mahaffey and J. C. Penney Co. Chairman Donald Seibert. And it has a 40-member National Advisory Committee of such widely known figures as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former House member Patsy T. Mink (D-Hawaii) and National Organization for Women President Eleanor C. Smeal.
The original conference was scheduled for December 1979 in Washington, with about 1,500 persons attending from around the country. It encountered a number of conflicts and organizational delays.
Some Carter administration officials began having nightmares about a poorly organized and perhaps runaway conference bursting into living rooms over television just a few months before the New Hampshire primary with embarrassing fights over abortion, homosexual rights and demands for more welfare or public aid to parochial schools.
When the original chairman, Wilbur J. Cohen, former HEW secretary, resigned, citing ill health, and Fleming stepped down rather than take a cochairman, the conference was postponed.
It has been rescheduled, but not as a single conference. Instead, there will be three or four regional conferences in the summer of 1980. This means that any embarrassing recommendation by any one conference will not be absolute.
After the regional conferences meet, a special national "task force" will meet in Washington in August to meld the recommendations into a single report. The task force will consist of the 40 members of the advisory committee, 20 special presidential appointees and 57 persons elected by the regional conference. With this composition and a heavy input of personnel named by the president, the task force appears less likely to cause the White House political problems.
Carr, in a telephone interview, denied that the new format is designed to cool potentially inflammatory recommendations. He said the task force is likely to be independent, and that holding regional conferences isn't intended to fragment public focus but to involve more people for the intended outlay of $3 million -- because it's costly to bring 1,500 persons to Washington for a one-shot conference.