In the beginning there was Mom, Apple Pie and the White House Conference on Families. The only one of these exclusively created by Jimmy Carter was the conference.

In 1976, Carter proposed to "examine the strengths of American families, the difficulties they face and the ways in which family life is affected by public policies." The notion was to bring together "real people," bureaucrats, experts and all, to figure out which policies helped and which hurt family life in this country.

At the time, the only foreseeable danger was that we might spend $3 million for an exercise in nostalgia and end up with a report as meaningful as a Hallmark greeting card.

Well, not to worry.

In the past four years, "family" has become a fighting word, and the benign conference has turned into a backdrop for a family feud that makes the Hatfields and McCoys seem like kissing cousins. Liberals and conservatives, pro-change and anti-change forces, "pro-life" and pro-choice lobbies and more or less traditional people have locked horns over everything from the definition of the family to the election of delegates to the conference.

"They all see this as a forum to pull their little red wagons across the stage," sighs John Carr, the executive director for the conference. It is no secret that the right-wing coalition has chosen the White House conference as a priority. A publication called The Right Woman -- which features an antebellum lady in a rocking chair as its mascot -- published an up-front manual on how to "win" delegate selection. And it's been well read.

In Tennessee, one woman told the national conference chair, Jim Guy Tucker, "We're going to take over the conference, and if we can't take over, we will hold a press conference and say we were shut off." In Alabama, the governor's wife insisted on pulling the state out of the event altogether because it was not, she said, in accord with "Judeo-christian values." The tenor of the Maryland meeting is best summarized by the words of one bused-in voter: "I know who I am supposed to vote for, but what is this conference about?"

One thing the conference is not supposed to be about, in any real way, is abortion." After 10 years, we can make no meaningful contribution to that debate," says Carr.

Nor is this a conference about the Equal Rights Amendment. Nor about homosexuality. The conference staff members are not interested in helping the government "intrude" or in making some definitive, ideological statement about what a family is or should be.

At the same time, they are also uninterested in becoming a target for the haters. As Tucker puts it, "What I have been alarmed at is not the legitimate issues, but those that lie just below the surface. I am alarmed by the racists, the bigots. It is shocking to get telephone calls asking 'What are you doing with Jews on your staff? This is a Christian nation.'"

Meanwhile, drowned out in all of this political din are the stories told by people who really need this kind of conference. They are not right-wing stories. They are not left-wing stories. They are family stories.

There is, for example, the military family transferred for the umpteenth time without any consideration of the effect on the children. There is the elderly woman who had a stroke and wonders why Medicare will pay for hospital care but not for home care. There is the working mother who wants to know why corporation will grant her a sick day if she is ill but not if her child is.

These are the people for whom the conference was created, as Tucker says, "to produce not pabulum, and nothing very revolutionary, but some good solid recommendations." The goal is, after all, to find those areas on which everyone can agree, to bring pressure on government and industry, to force policy-makers to think about family life.

This battle can go on until the last delegate is selected and elected in mid-April and perhaps through the conferences in June and and July. The controversy can undermine the conference's credibility and clout. But it would be a shame to lose this chance just because some people want to pull their red wagons across a stage.