By Jackie Kucinich
Each Thursday for more than a decade, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) has hosted a salon for House Republican Members featuring leaders of conservative thought, former White House officials, pollsters, an astronaut and even then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
The group is called the Theme Team and its mission is simple: to generate thought-provoking conversation to educate Members and staff about a range of different issues. Kingston said a "rolling congregation" of mostly rank-and-file Members attend the hour long meetings.
"Anywhere from 20 Members to 30 Members attend, but they are not always the same people, and people have to come and go just because of scheduling demands," Kingston explained. "It's a chance to have some off-the-record Q-and-A, while not necessarily a heavy policy lift."
The group was first launched more than 20 years ago by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and Kingston took it over in 1997. The venue for the meeting has changed with the fortunes of the Republican Conference, going from a stately room in then-Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) suite of offices to a room in the basement of the Capitol.
Despite the demotion, the guests keep coming and the list is eclectic.
Over the past year and a half, the group has had more than three dozen speakers, including Justice Antonin Scalia, Dr. Patch Adams, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino and pollster Scott Rasmussen.
"It's a chance to get a bird's-eye view from somebody who may be more of a Congressional observer than an operative," Kingston said. "We don't really do policy wonks as much as we do media types."
Only Republican Members are permitted to attend the meeting, but Kingston said the group is not meant to be "a hard-core Republican thing."
"We had Rahm Emanuel once," Kingston said, referring to when Emanuel popped in to the meeting in 2008 to give the group his thoughts on the GOP election-year message.
Kingston said former Clinton administration officials John Podesta, Joe Lockhart and Paul Begala were other Democrats who have addressed the group.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) told Roll Call in March that he had just come from a Theme Team meeting where "we listened to [former Clinton adviser] Dick Morris talk about polling and some political things he's working on with the elections, with what to do between now and then, his advice if we take back the majority, things that they did right and did wrong when he was in the Clinton White House."
Kingston said, "My challenge is, experts are not unusual in this town but to have a celebrity expert with a little more firepower. What you want to do is have somebody who has sort of a constituency and has an expertise but also has the savvy."
"My job is to make it scintillating," he said.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed by Members who regularly attend.
"I try not to miss it," Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said. "It's a means of being able to hear these people that are on the forefront nationally. They help me understand what they are seeing and what they think."
Broun said the pollsters who have spoken have helped him to "stay abreast of our issues as well as what the American people across the country are thinking."
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said before Kingston took over, the meetings were a yearly event.
"Then Jack took over, and we ended up having it in perpetuity," Ehlers said.
Ehlers said some Members use the meeting to gather fodder for one-minute speeches on the House floor, but most Members attend to ask questions and enjoy the open forum.
"It's just a good thing to get together to talk about what's going on with our constituents and how we can best make our position known to the public," he said.
"You know one of the best things about Theme Team is you bring somebody in like Steve Forbes people who get us talking amongst ourselves, you get some brains churning, you often come up with some good ideas that are worth pursuing," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said.
Gohmert recounted one question-and-answer session during which he asked former Vice President Dick Cheney whether he believed the Troubled Asset Relief Program was "a good idea in your own mind."
Gohmert said Cheney teased him for asking a tough question and then replied, "Let me just answer like this, I believe with all my heart President [George W.] Bush believed it was the right thing.'"
"And I said, "Well I wouldn't let you get away with that answer except you have answered my question,'" Gohmert said. "People like that are memorable."