By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Randall Terry has a thing for fake blood. He buys it by the jug ($31.95 a gallon from a costume store in South Bend, Ind.) and splatters it over baby dolls to represent aborted fetuses or smears it on copies of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade.
Not exactly subtle symbolism. But then Randall Terry, the once and future shock jock of the antiabortion movement, has never been one for subtlety.
"Don't get blood on the pavement," the former head of Operation Rescue warned his fervent band of followers yesterday as they prepared for a second day of protests at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. He didn't want to give the police a reason to haul them away -- at least not yet. Terry's supporters carefully poured the stage blood on their hands and then ran their fingers across copies of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court ruling that legalized abortion.
Terry seemed delighted with his latest prop, which he said came to him in a vision as he contemplated how to disrupt the Sotomayor hearings. Actually, he liked blood-splattered baby dolls, too. They were wheeled in strollers across the campus of the University of Notre Dame back in May to condemn the commencement speech given by President Obama. On Monday, the dolls were back in action, laid out in child-size coffins and then paraded by Terry and company past the clutch of TV cameras outside the Senate hearings for Sotomayor. The coffins were accompanied by a demonstrator dressed in judge's robes brandishing the sickle of the Grim Reaper.
"You gotta admit, the Grim Reaper sickle is a good effect," Terry said, flashing a self-satisfied grin in his blue suit.
He's always had a theatrical bent, though it hasn't been in evidence much in recent years. Now, much to the consternation of people on both sides of the abortion debate, he's moved to the Washington area to try to reclaim the prominence he once enjoyed within the antiabortion movement. And he's using many of the same tactics that made him famous two decades ago.
Terry, 50, was in his 20s when he founded Operation Rescue -- the result, he said, of a vision from God that appeared before his eyes at a prayer meeting. The vision was, he said, a scroll with instructions to stop abortion. Along with the scroll, he saw thousands of people gathered in front of abortion clinics to save babies, and he saw himself being interviewed on "Donahue," the popular TV talk show hosted by Phil Donahue.
Growing up in Binghamton, N.Y., Terry, the son of schoolteachers, always had a flair for making himself the center of attention.
When he was just 3, he climbed the fire escape of his parents' apartment building, and as his childhood friend Eric Mickaloski recalled, the fire department had to be summoned to rescue him. In bible college, after a religious conversion to evangelical Christianity, he wrote and staged a musical based on the story of the prodigal son. The star of the show: Randall Terry.
During Operation Rescue's glory days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Terry was arrested dozens of times for his calculated brand of street theater. Sometimes, he and others chained themselves to the actual medical equipment used to perform abortions. Other times, they shoved themselves into the faces of pregnant women on their way into the clinic, screaming "Mommy, Mommy, don't kill me!"
It was God, Terry said, who ordered him to go to such extremes -- to do everything he could to save the unborn. That included stunts such as displaying a dead fetus at a press conference and arranging to have one delivered to Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. (Terry did three months in federal prison for that one.)
For a few years, Terry's tactics transformed the antiabortion movement and earned him accolades from conservative Christian leaders, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
It started to unravel when Congress passed a 1994 law that made it a federal crime to block clinics. Suddenly, Terry and Operation Rescue were being fined every time they violated that law. Planned Parenthood also went after Terry, filing lawsuits that he lost in state courts. He ended up owing the group $1.6 million and filed for bankruptcy in 1998 -- the same year he tried to capitalize on his Operation Rescue fame by running for Congress in Upstate New York. He was trounced.
Terry's personal life got messy, too. In 2000, he divorced his first wife, Cynthia, with whom he'd had a daughter, adopted two more children and taken in a foster child. The following year he married Andrea, a young campaign volunteer. His actions earned him a public reprimand from his longtime minister in Binghamton and condemnation from some in the evangelical community.
Then there were problems with his children. His adopted son Jamiel came out as gay in 2004, and Terry renounced him. (They've since reconciled.) His adopted daughter and his foster daughter got pregnant out of wedlock; the foster daughter converted to Islam.
Those were "rough years," said Terry, who resurfaced briefly when he served as the spokesman for the parents of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state whose husband sought to have her disconnected from her feeding tube. After Schiavo's parents lost their emotional battle to keep their daughter alive in 2005, Terry faded from public view. He was preoccupied by his financial troubles and preparing to convert to Catholicism.
Now he is trying to build a new antiabortion organization and mount a comeback.
He said he considers his noisy protests at Notre Dame a resounding success: He got to put the president on the spot and make it clear that Terry and his followers won't go along with Obama's efforts to lower the volume on abortion and other hot-button social issues. Just two weeks later, Terry commandeered the spotlight again after the slaying of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, who had been the target of massive protests organized by Terry and Operation Rescue in 1991.
"George Tiller was a mass murderer," Terry told reporters after the 67-year-old doctor was shot in the lobby of his Wichita church. "Horrifically, he reaped what he sowed."
Leaders of the antiabortion movement are cringing at Terry's sudden return. They say his incendiary rhetoric and showy tactics turn off ordinary Americans and reflect Terry's struggle to regain his glory years.
"It's sad in a way," said Fredericksburg antiabortion activist Patrick Mahoney, who was close to Terry at one time but, like others in the movement, is now estranged from him. "It's almost like a heavyweight boxer who's past his prime. The movement has gone by him."
Today, most mainstream antiabortion activists focus more on action in the courts and state legislatures than on public spectacle and civil disobedience, said Cynthia Gorney, author of "Articles of Faith," about the abortion wars.
But not Terry.
"The pro-life movement is getting its hind end kicked," he said, "because we think that we can literally upend the social order as it is now with a few phone calls, letters and 'We're going to sell a rose once a year and march once a year on the Capitol.' It's ludicrous."
He laughed. "I drive them crazy." He drives the abortion-rights supporters just as crazy. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, also denounced Terry's "sickening" rhetoric. "Some anti-choice groups try to disown Terry, but it's too late," she said.
Terry lives with Andrea, 34, and their four boys in a rented two-story brick colonial in Northern Virginia. (Andrea, a petite, quick-witted brunette who home-schools their children, ages 2 to 6, declined to be interviewed for this article.) Terry insists that the location of his home not be published because, he said, he has received death threats. He sees no irony in his having participated in demonstrations at the homes of abortion doctors.
Terry and his family attend Queen of Apostles Catholic Church in Alexandria. In his new faith, he has quickly proved to be a thorn in the side of the American Catholic hierarchy, demanding that certain bishops be replaced for not being tough enough on Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
He refuses to reveal much about his finances, which have never fully recovered from his bankruptcy. He raises money through mailings to what he describes as a small list of supporters, who pay the family's rent and the expenses for his current organization, the Society for Truth and Justice. The group, he said, has spent more than $80,000 printing and mailing out hundreds of thousands of booklets promoting his latest endeavors. He said he supports his family by writing fundraising material for nonprofit organizations. Supporters also helped him buy a $400,000 house in a gated community in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., which he said he is now struggling to sell.
He was at a low point, his followers say, when he moved to the Washington area in 2008. Terry "has been so maligned and so lied about," said Missy Smith, who lives in Northwest Washington and spent 100 consecutive days praying the rosary with Terry outside the White House to protest Obama's support for abortion rights. "He's such a polarizing figure." Nonetheless, she believes that he has been "anointed by God."
Tall and slightly bulkier than during his Operation Rescue days, Terry wears brown alligator-skin cowboy boots with a suit and tie. He works out of the basement of his home in an office decorated with religious statues and icons of Saint George, the dragon slayer, and the archangel Michael, venerated by Catholics as the defender of heaven. Four video cameras are aimed at his desk, in preparation for a television show he wants to pitch.
He has recently launched a radio show in nine markets, including Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Kansas City, on which he plays a keyboard, sings (he's recorded two CDs, one gospel and one country and western) and offers political commentary.
He courts the media assiduously, with frequent phone calls and events. Recently, he offered Guinness beer and chicken wings at a media event at the National Press Club in downtown Washington.
When one reporter arrived at his house for an interview, the Terry family and several supporters greeted her with balloons, confetti, welcome signs and a hearty round of "For she's a jolly good journalist." Everyone, including Terry's wife, looked delighted with their performance.
Most of Terry's work is focused on starting a new organization, Operation Rescue Insurrecta Nex (one Latin translation is "insurrection against death.")
At the inaugural meeting last month, about 40 people clustered in a chilly meeting room at the Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City to learn the ins and outs of civil disobedience, including getting arrested to achieve maximum publicity. (The training would come in handy at the Sotomayor hearings this week, where a succession of Terry's supporters, including 61-year-old Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, disrupted the proceedings with carefully timed outbursts. Several of them were arrested.)
Some of the participants were local. Others had traveled from their homes in South Bend, Ind., where they had participated in Terry's noisy anti-Obama protests. For some, it was their first foray into organized protests and civil disobedience. Gale and Joyce Dodd, who live in Granger, Ind., had never done anything more in the antiabortion movement than put a bumper sticker on their car until friends introduced them to the protest leader. Terry "touched my heart," said Gale, choking up as he tapped his chest. The couple was arrested along with Terry and 20 others a few days before the Notre Dame commencement after wheeling the stage-blood-covered dolls onto the university's campus.
"Anybody here irate?" Terry bellowed at the gathering as he held up a hand and others followed. "Anybody here angry? Anybody here tireless?"
"All right," he said, "our mission is to be the irate, tireless minority."
"The babies keep getting churned out into dumpsters, into landfills, into sewers every day," he told them. "So part of our mission is to accept how bleak things are, but also to accept the fact that God himself wants to end this holocaust more than all of us in this room combined."
The inflammatory rhetoric is deliberate and, in his view, in the vaunted tradition of historic social movements such as abolition and women's suffrage. His language is liberally sprinkled with words like "holocaust" and "cauldron of evil" and "slaughter." He refuses to use the term "abortion," preferring "baby killing."
Those who support abortion rights, he insists, are "lying proponents of murder." And Washington, he has decided, is where to take them on.
"If child killing is going to be ended, the road goes though this capital, and I intend to be a part of that movement," he said. "And I intend to lead -- to be a key leader of that movement. And I am."