Of all the divergent byways the Road to the White House provides, there are none so curious as the detour that has me pushing out to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia to spend a week with Randall Terry, his family, and his hive of pro-life activists. Here, I will hunker down with the head of the Society for Truth and Justice, Terry’s current organization. Two decades ago, as founder of Operation Rescue, Terry was the most celebrated, dreaded, and despised pro-life agitator in America, leading a movement that saw 70,000 arrests in abortion protests in the largest civil disobedience efforts since civil rights days. He’s been arrested nearly 50 times himself for actions such as chaining himself to an abortion clinic sink and presenting Bill Clinton with an aborted fetus. All told, Terry’s spent over a year of his life in jail.
At his mountain compound, we will argue religion. We will watch abolitionist movies for inspiration. We will drink whiskey late into the night while having fetus-friendly jam sessions in his basement office/TV studio, with Terry holding down vocals and piano or guitar while performing songs of his own composition such as “Cryin’ for You Baby,” sung in the style of his musical hero, Barry Manilow.
But I’m leaping ahead, and these are sideshows, besides. While I don’t at all mind fraternizing with whiskey-drinking, antislaving, pro-life activists, this isn’t a social call. I’ve dropped in on Terry because he is cutting 30-second TV ads for himself and his crew of mercenaries, who are running in elections throughout the country—mostly -congressional. None of them expects or is even trying to win. Terry, in addition to a congressional race in Florida that he’s not truly competing in, is also not truly competing on the presidential ballot in three states as an independent. But that’s all beside the point. Because Terry boisterously predicts the cumulative effect of their graphic anti-abortion ads, which stations must run because of their federal candidacies, will do nothing less than dislodge the most pro-choice president in U.S. history under the weight of 52 million dead babies.
Dead babies. There you have it. It causes discomfort, but I said it outright. Terry would approve, since that’s what he calls them, mirroring his conviction. It’s my conviction too, I suppose, since I’m a pro-lifer when I think about it, which like many of similar stripe, I mostly don’t. But if we’re being honest, I’m not as convicted as the kind of people who use formulations like “dead babies” in polite conversation. It’s the kind of talk that causes even many pro-lifers to nervously scan the horizon for avenues of escape from the barking mad guy who thinks he’s an Old Testament prophet.
“Dead babies” are words that arrive weaponized. You’ll notice Terry doesn’t call dead babies “the unborn,” or frame their plight in the context of the “right to life” or “reproductive choice.” He will often call a Planned Parenthood center an “abortion mill,” but otherwise rarely even uses the word abortion. “You abort the takeoff of a rocket,” he says mockingly. “You murder a human being.” He prefers calling abortion “baby killing,” and abortionists “baby killers.”
I dwell on the words “dead babies” because they animate and illuminate every corner of Randall Terry’s large and often messy life. They undergird his credo, which is elegantly simple, and it goes like this: If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it. He seeks not to persuade, but to offend. Or to persuade by offending.
To go see Randall Terry, who lives in a no-horse town, you push through the one-horse town of Romney—no relation to Mitt—where Dairy Queen counts as a sit-down restaurant and where even the Chevy dealership has three crosses planted in front of it, not just for Jesus but for the two thieves (though nobody tends to steal much in Romney).
Terry’s SUV meets me at his nearly impossible-to-find turnoff, where we’re faced with a dilemma. Take a rickety wooden bridge that doesn’t look like it could bear the weight of a housecat, or traverse a shallow stream. He lustily rips off through the rushing water, and I follow (the hell with it, my car’s a rental). After climbing a half-mile up a dirt road that doesn’t seem convinced of itself, we arrive at the top of a scenic mountain, with a vista of the poplars, red oaks, and sugar maples that carpet the surrounding Appalachians.
Terry greets me warmly, wearing cargo pants and alligator boots. I’ve seen him in YouTube videos, many of them gleaned from his temporarily-suspended-on-account-of-the-election television show, syndicated to mostly Christian stations. It’s called Randall Terry: The Voice of Resistance. On it, he might play piano-ballad pro-life-themed parodies. Or music videos in which a firing squad wearing Obama masks execute baby dolls with paintball guns to the strains of Alice Cooper’s “Dead Babies.” Or he might dump bloody plastic fetuses on the conference table in Nancy Pelosi’s office to drive the point home, in his own subtle way. Terry describes the show as “a hybrid of Stephen Colbert, Rush [Limbaugh], and John the Baptist.”
But flashing back to his late ’80s Operation Rescue heyday, I’m reminded that Terry’s hair, once a white man’s afro, has gone close-cropped and respectable. Or as respectable as Terry can get, which isn’t very. His ideological opponents call him things like “ineffectual clown,” “asshole no one likes,” and “extremist antichoice fameball.” His ideological soulmates sometimes call him worse.
Terry inflames passions on both sides of the ball because he is not averse to exceeding the limits of what most consider rational behavior. Plus, he freely criticizes nearly everyone else for not pushing as hard as he does, and for pulling punches to preserve their precious tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, which Terry has always rejected so that he can say whatever about whomever he wants. Too much of pro-life activism these days, he says, is about getting your picture taken with a purportedly pro-life congressman who won’t do anything about dead babies, so you can run it in your newsletter, so you can raise more tax-exempt revenue: “The pro-life movement became the pro-life establishment. The pro-life establishment became the pro-life industry. The pro-life industry became collaborators. There is money in this. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars, have been raised off the ‘cause.’ So these people become collaborators.” Therefore, admits Terry, “I’m a pain in the ass to the pro-life movement. I’m a nightmare to the baby killers. So the baby killers hate me, and the pro-lifers hate me, because I make them look bad.”
Act first, count the costs later—if ever—is pretty much his operating philosophy. One of his best friends, Gary McCullough, director of the Christian Newswire publicity service, describes scuba drift-diving with Terry off Singer Island in Florida. Says McCullough: “As Randall descended, he was experiencing pain in the eyes. But rather than return to the surface and find out what was wrong, he continued descending. . . . He foolishly would not let the pain keep him from completing the dive and in the process broke most every blood vessel in both eyes. For the next 24 hours, he looked like a sci-fi monster, in that every white part of his eyes was now bright red. When most would wisely retreat, Randall will move forward. In the process, he may make mistakes that harm himself, make him look like a fool or monster, but quitting, or even slowing down, is not in his nature.”
Though the scenery is impressive, Terry’s compound is a large, no-frills, dun-colored bunkhouse, all cinderblock and window AC units. When he fled an expensive mortgage in Falls Church, Virginia (his income is almost entirely dependent on supporters), and started renting this for a song nearly two years ago, the building was a recently shuttered Catholic home for adults with Down syndrome. Surveying the spartan rooms with dated furniture and dry-erase boards on the doors bearing visitors’ names, I ask him what I should call this place. Koresh-ville? No, he says, rolling his eyes. “We’re not a cult.”
His cohorts, he assures me, basically serve as independent pro-life missionaries who raise their own funds. When they live and work with him, he covers room and board. Many come in from out of state, stay for a few days, then leave. Unlike the Branch Davidians, they don’t believe in Terry’s messianic power, and most feel free to shoot him down when he comes up with half-baked pro-life capers, criticism he’ll even solicit since, as he confesses, “I have a tendency to overreach.” Nobody objected, however, to the grandiose name he’s given the place. “We call it the House of Ascalon—the name of the spear St. George used to slay the dragon,” he beams.
Living in a sequestered two-bedroom apartment within Ascalon are Terry’s second wife, Andrea, and their four sons. Terry also has a biological adult daughter with his first wife (they split in 1999) and raised three black children with her, two of whom they adopted and their half-sister (he talked their mother out of an abortion at a clinic protest in the ’80s). Terry’s adopted son, Jamiel—with whom he publicly sparred over Jamiel’s homosexuality—was killed in a car accident last November. (More on that later—as I said, -Terry’s life is often messy.) Randall and Andrea’s four boys were born between 2002 and 2006. “It’s sad that my wife can’t be pleased by television,” jokes Terry, an evangelical who converted to Catholicism in 2006 and is not a fan of artificial birth control. Andrea is not the barefoot’n’pregnant type, however. A brainy former Hill staffer with Lisa Loeb glasses and a switchblade wit, she says when they first moved out to the sticks, she went into town to Rite Aid to ask for her favorite magazine, the Economist. The clerk looked at her dumbfounded, saying, “We only have regular magazines.”
“So you carry the Economist?” retorted Andrea.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” the clerk said.
The boys are spirited but well disciplined. Over the week, they whip me at Bughouse Chess, and are elated when they’re allowed to think they whipped me at arm-wrestling. They all seem to bear middle names that pay tribute to Terry’s favorite hard-chargers: Charlemagne, Winston, Theodore (after Teddy Roosevelt), William (after Braveheart himself, William Wallace). “We’re raising little warriors,” Terry smiles. “Not little warriors, just warriors,” corrects Andrea.
The kids run outside to shoot their bows-and-arrows at a target. “Remember to shoot uphill instead of down, arrows sail!” Terry yells, which for him, passes as caution.
Over the week, I’m exposed to the floating cast of Terry’s pro-life Hole-in-the-Wall-Gang. In from D.C., there’s Missy Smith, his presidential running mate, who said in her press-release rollout, “I killed two of my babies by abortion, and I know the private hell that millions of women live in day after day because of their ‘safe legal abortion.’ ” Missy became a full-time pro-life activist after reading a Mona Charen column on fetal harvesting—the process whereby body parts of the aborted are sold for scientific use. Terry ran Smith’s unsuccessful 2010 run for Congress against Eleanor Holmes Norton in Washington, D.C., in which Missy carpet-bombed the local airwaves with 225 graphic ads. This garnered thousands of death threats and 6 percent of the vote.
In from Virginia is George Offerman, a psychotherapist who has also brought his 17-year-old son, Matthew, who accompanies him to “abortion mill” protests. Offerman nearly became a priest, until he was turned off after two priests hit on him. “People ask, ‘Did you remain chaste in seminary?’ And I say, ‘It depends how you spell ‘chased.’ ”
Offerman nearly chucked Catholicism and pro-life activism, becoming disillusioned with both. He felt the National March for Life each year had become “like a circus, a social gathering. Could you imagine Jews going to Auschwitz and doing that. ‘Dude, bring a bottle of wine. Picnic at Oven 4!’ ” But he stayed Catholic and in the fight, partly as a result of spending time in psych units, where he found one suicidal woman after another that he treated mentioning abortion. He met Terry at a clinic protest a few years back and admired his commitment to the cause. Everyone else protested from the sidewalk (as mandated by federal law). But Terry wormed his way into the office building harboring the clinic, so that he could talk women out of abortions in the lobby, by telling authorities he had to go see his accountant. Terry’s accountant conveniently had an office in the building, says Offerman, though Terry had to call him to show up on a Saturday, thus giving Terry the legal excuse.
John and Ruth Cosgrove are in from St. Louis, both manning the kitchen. Ruth likes to make Mudslides and play Monkees songs on her Kindle, mischievously trying to charge me $10 per Diet Coke so that they have more money to run ads. Ruth has worked for an abused-children’s shelter, and says she often hears the argument that children would be better off aborted than abused. Which she calls nonsense. “I was an abused child,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I’d be better off dead.” John, who is a chef back home, and who keeps the group dining table filled with everything from chicken satay to beef brisket, came to pro-lifedom racked with guilt for taking his high-school girlfriend to get an abortion. Years later, he went back to see her, to gauge whether she was as conscience-stricken as he was. “It was the best decision I ever made,” she said, to his disappointment. “I would’ve been fat for my prom.”
There’s Muriel McConnon, a retired accounting-firm office manager, up from Florida. Muriel enjoys drinking nonalcoholic O’Douls while playing air piano on Randall’s desk in the basement, as Randall bangs out boogie-woogie tunes on the real thing, preferring his drinks a little stronger. (Before I arrived, Terry warned me, “You better drink. . . . Never trust a journalist who doesn’t drink.”) But despite Muriel’s grandmotherly appearance, she turns out to be hardcore. Once, after being arrested with Terry at an abortion protest, she found herself serving 31 days in jail, her cot in between a prostitute’s and a murderer’s. She played chess with the murderer. I ask Muriel if she won. “Of course,” she says.
Some of the rest of the crew are regulars. Gary Boisclair, Terry’s aide-de-camp who says he’s a “full time pro-life missionary,” lives on the grounds. A young-De Niro look-alike who favors “Infidel” T-shirts, Boisclair ran in a Democratic primary this year against Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, even though he wasn’t living in the state. “Democrats know how to fight for the little guy, and I’m fighting for the littlest guy,” he told the Star Tribune. Boisclair wanted to punish Ellison not only with dismembered-baby ads (Ellison being pro-choice), but also because the Muslim Ellison took his oath of office on a Koran. Boisclair got creamed. So I facetiously offer that maybe he’d have done better if he’d depicted Ellison butchering babies with a Koran. “We just don’t have the CGI going yet,” Boisclair shrugs.
Then there’s David Lewis, who used to work an IT job at a bank, but who’s come on with Terry full time. Lewis has starred in all manner of Terry-sponsored capers, from calling HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius a “murderer” during her speech at Georgetown University, to opposing John Boehner in a Republican primary for caving on his promise to defund Planned Parenthood. Terry’s army goes after pro-life Republicans as often and aggressively as they do pro-choice Democrats when they think their issue has been sold out. Lewis was smoked by Boehner, but at least he was able to voice his concerns in person. “Even if it was through a bullhorn at the March for Life this past January,” he qualifies. Lewis also boasts of garnering all kinds of media coverage when he did a sit-in at Boehner’s office. Even Vanity Fair wrote him up, he says, “Though it was to clown on my shirt. I was wearing an orange shirt with a suit. They didn’t like that at all.”
Also in the lineup is Andrew Beacham, who edits and produces Terry’s television show. Beacham is a talented visual artist with a long ponytail, who says that his hairstyle-of-understanding makes him look empathetic when he sneaks into NARAL functions. He’s made headlines for stunts like yelling down Obama at a Notre Dame speech when the president was controversially honored by the Catholic university, for which he got punched in the stomach by a student’s mother.
Beacham’s running for Congress in Kentucky (where he doesn’t live) in order to air his anti-Obama ads, one of which will be released shortly after I’ve left, generating national headlines. As his spot shows photos of dismembered fetuses, Beacham informs viewers that Obama gives your money to Planned Parenthood, who “murder babies.” While flashing pictures of Middle Eastern Christians with their throats cut, the voiceover adds that Obama also gives your money “to the Muslim Brotherhood, who murder Christians and Jews” (a reference to U.S. aid to Egypt, now run by the Muslim Brotherhood). Wearing a straw hat, Beacham closes his ad looking like a bug-eyed hillbilly, as he exhales a cloud of cigar smoke, intoning, “If you vote for Obama, the real question is, what are you smoking?”
Astute political observers could be forgiven for wondering how Terry’s ragtag outfit could, as Terry puts it, “bring down a sitting president with dead babies.” If I were a betting man, my money would be on “not especially likely.” But that doesn’t mean Terry doesn’t have an elaborate strategy. He’s been market-testing it for years. He challenged Obama in Democratic primaries to force the FCC to allow his dead-baby ads to run during the Super Bowl in states where he could get on the ballot. Earlier this year, he did, in fact, beat Obama outright in 14 counties in Oklahoma. “And I’m prepared to take the oath of office for those counties,” Terry adds gamely. Granted, it was Oklahoma, where Obama only got 34 percent more of the vote in 2008 than I did, and I wasn’t running. Still, it was a closed primary, and Terry’s efforts were good for 18 percent of the vote (the party stripped him of his delegate).
But Terry’s machinations in the general election aren’t entirely fanciful. He points to a recent poll conducted by the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List in four big swing states (including Florida and Ohio), which indicates that abortion is an unexploited avenue of attack. By a 2-1 margin, undecideds said they were less likely to vote for Obama after learning about his inclusion of taxpayer-funding for abortions in Obamacare. Sixty-six percent of swing voters were less likely to vote for candidates supporting the HHS mandate that forces faith-based institutions to provide health coverage for abortion-inducing drugs. Even 49 percent of voters leaning toward Obama are less likely to do so after learning of his opposition to a law that prevented babies from being left to die after a failed abortion.
Terry says if he were just Joe Super-PAC, most stations would tell him to get lost with his offensive ads. But where he and his comrades are on the ballot, the FCC is antichoice when it comes to TV stations running candidate ads. They’re required to run them, so long as Terry can pay for them. Which he vows he’ll have no problem doing. He says recent fundraising has been robust. He sends out Internet versions of the ads to his mailing lists, along with a help-us-broadcast-this pitch.
Terry’s slate isn’t big—there are only six candidates including Terry. But he counts four times since he’s on the presidential ballot in Nebraska, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and is running against Rep. Alcee Hastings in Florida as well. Hastings’s district can reach the core of Obama’s support in South Florida, which encompasses nearly a third of the population of the state. Terry’s internal Florida polling shows that hardcore “anti-baby-killing ads” can suppress Obama’s vote by 4 percent if people see them (Obama won the state by 2.8 percentage points in 2008). But what is important to Terry isn’t how many candidates are running, it’s how many swing-state television markets can be reached. For example, depending on where Terry buys ads in West Virginia, those ads can also hit Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Terry’s plan, then, is to wage what he baldly calls a “voter suppression campaign.” He knows full well his ads will turn off large swaths of voters. But he’s only playing for a segment of the electorate—the 54 percent of Catholics and the 26 percent of evangelicals who voted for “the quintessential child killer in the Western Hemisphere” in 2008. His ads are designed to drown those voters in shame and the blood of dead babies. They can vote for Mitt Romney or not. He doesn’t really care. “They can vote for Mickey Mouse, they can vote for their mothers,” Terry says. “Just don’t vote for Obama.”
I point out to Terry that abortion was legal before Obama took office, and it will remain legal after he leaves. No matter, he posits. If pro-lifers could knock off a sitting president, abortion is back on the map regardless of the Supreme Court makeup. “We might not be able to form a government, but boy, we can bring one down.”
Terry’s first shot, already airing, targets the actor Samuel L. Jackson, who plugged Planned Parenthood in a viral f-bomb-rich pro-Obama ad called “Wake the F— Up.” -Terry’s ad, packed with dead-baby carnage (many of the -photos he uses in ads come from photographer Monica Miller, who retrieves fetal remains from dumpsters), points out that Planned Parenthood was founded by Margaret Sanger, who “wanted to abort black babies and sterilize black men and women.” Since only 12 percent of the population is black, but over 30 percent of aborted babies are, “That’s black genocide,” says Terry. “He’s carrying water for racists. Mr. Jackson needs to wake up and smell the burning crosses” (KKK and lynching images flash across the screen). If that isn’t edgy enough, Terry also launched a website—uncletomjackson.com—which features both the ad and a longer form video starring Terry as a recurring character he plays on his television show, Sir Reginald Bling.
Bling, as the name suggests, is pimped out in a fedora, dookie rope, and Sir Mix A Lot-style glasses. He speaks in a heavy—how shall we say—inner-city dialect. There’s no blackface involved, but close. Bling/Terry’s effort is a response video in the faux-Seussian style of the original Jackson video. A typical couplet: Who do racists at Planned Parenthood turn to call on? / Samuel L. Jackson, the new Uncle Tom. Like Jackson, renowned for his f-bombs, Terry wasn’t going to bleep out any of the “m—f—ers” in the ad. But in checking with his team, cooler heads (such as they are) prevailed.
Not that Terry has an aversion to f-bombs. He’s surprisingly salty for a pro-life activist, and also has a healthy taste for grain and grape, a function, he says, of his long journey toward Catholicism, where he was tutored by “very earthy men. It freed me from this false spirituality of Pentecostal pharisaism.”
Being from the earthy-Protestant school myself, I good-naturedly give Terry plenty of business about switching teams, papal infallibility, and kid-touching church scandals. I inquire whether he’s ever seen Mary on a piece of toast. “Don’t make fun of a guy’s mother,” he cautions, “especially not your savior’s.” But his new friends, he says, freed him. “Once I realized you could have a beer, and when I heard a bishop say ‘that guy is a f—ing asshole,’ my head snapped around and I thought, ‘He’s a real man.’ True holiness is obedience to the Ten Commandments. But if I’m with a bunch of guys in a foxhole, and I’m at war with evil, I don’t want guys that are . . . timid. I want guys that are just and holy and will protect my back and aren’t going to piss and whine at me about things that are insubstantial.”
Believe it or don’t, but the timing of Terry’s continuous-take performance as Bling is dead-on. The Internet ad is reasonably funny. As is Terry generally, which he doesn’t mind telling you. In his official bio, he points out that he “is a prankster, a practical joker; friends say he has a great sense of humor.”
Terry, I find, is often funny like Michael Scott, the character played by Steve Carell on The Office. When Scott, the befuddled boss at a paper-manufacturing company who wants to be loved by his subordinates, performs a Chris Rock routine in the office replete with n-words, he can’t understand why everyone is horrified: “How come Chris Rock can do a routine and everybody finds it hilarious and groundbreaking, and I go do the exact same routine, same comedic timing, and people file a complaint to corporate?” Similarly, sometimes Terry is funny because he’s trying to be. And sometimes he’s funny because he’s not.
If the Samuel L. Jackson spot is a warmup, Terry’s main chance is what he calls “The Nightmare Ad,” the planning of which throws Terry into a whirlwind manic blur. “I’m a dog on a bone,” he says of his creative intensity. Even during protracted interviews, he often paces like a caged animal. The only time he ever sits still is while making the entire house—even his children—watch Amazing Grace, the 2006 biopic about William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist, which made him sob the first time he saw it. He pours himself a Rolling Rock, and me a bourbon, and tucks into the film like he’s reading his own diary. To Terry’s thinking, slavery, the Holocaust, dead babies—they’re all on the same social-justice continuum.
When asked whether he isn’t overlooking the successes of the establishment pro-life movement, Terry grows enraged. You can point out to Terry, as Clarke Forsythe of Americans United For Life has written, that the last 20 years of pro-life activity have seen scores of abortion battles won, from the passage of informed consent laws to ultrasound requirements to a 33 percent rate of reduction in abortions since 1990 to polls showing a record low number of Americans considering themselves pro-choice. But Terry’s aggressively dismissive.
How can partial success be considered success? “Take that question, remove the word ‘abortion,’ and insert the words ‘slavery’ or ‘killing Jews.’ Then see if it feels stupid. It’s bullshit, it’s always been bullshit!” Great, says Terry, if abortions are reduced and there are fewer places to get them. But so what? People are still allowed to get them. “MLK wouldn’t have been happy,” he says, “if they told Rosa Parks, ‘You can sit in the front on this one bus, but not on the rest.’ ”
The Nightmare Ad Terry is planning is a template ad—all his candidates will use it, dropping in their names and visages at the end. Planning for it comes to resemble a multi-front war. In Terry’s large basement nerve-center, where his cubicle is adorned with a Winston Churchill cigar box, he meets with his team at the conference table, which sits next to a wardrobe containing the guerrilla-theater props they take on their pro-life harassment tours: fake blood containers, chicken suits, slave chains, bloody plastic fetus dolls. I mention that those last look like KFC’s honey BBQ wings. “That’s sick,” says Terry. “I’m sick?” I reply. “You’re the one with the box of plastic fetus dolls.”
The team hovers over laptops, cursing the slow Internet connection, looking at the best abortion and Islamic violence stills and video. In addition to cutting one Nightmare Ad featuring the usual abortion viscera, Terry wants to hammer Obama on playing piggy bank to the Muslim Brotherhood. He figures both ads hit the same target, and are complementary.
As a dutiful Christian, I ask him if he isn’t being a little hard on our Muslim brothers and sisters. Though my heart’s not really in it, as the week I’m here, cable news is wallpapered with footage of our dead ambassador to Libya getting dragged through the street. He says he’ll bottom-line it succinctly: “Jesus died to start Christianity. Muhammad killed to start Islam.” Although Jesus, he says, is no pushover. “Christ would send Muhammad to burn in hell forever. If you think we’re extreme, wait till the day of judgment, baby!”
The man putting Terry’s ad together, Ryan Holmberg, who has his own production company in Nashville and typically shoots things like country music or fitness videos, finds some choice Islamic extremist footage. On LiveLeak, there’s a recent clip of a Christian convert getting beheaded for going apostate, while his Islamic beheaders chant “Allahu Akbar.” We all gag a little. But Terry is so upset, he gets up and leaves the room for 10 minutes. You would think after all these years of looking at photos of abortion gore, Terry would have a cast-iron stomach. But the sight of blood unjustly shed never ceases to revolt him.
On another afternoon, a group of us find ourselves in Terry’s studio, which adjoins the office. In it are his ornate desk, his bookshelves stacked with leather-bound volumes, his Churchill statuary. Off to the side, in front of a green-screen, are three electric guitars, and his prized possession: a nine-foot 1898 Steinway D—“the ultimate piano ever made,” Terry says. While Terry bangs around on it with wild abandon, resting a drink on it is tantamount to placing a glass on his wife’s head, I learn the hard way. In the back of the room are three wooden church pews under an “Amen Corner” sign, beneath a stained glass window depicting St. Bernard calling Crusaders to take the Holy Land.
In front of the camera is the aforementioned David Lewis, who, now that he’s done tormenting John Boehner in his orange shirt, is running on Terry’s slate as an independent candidate for Congress in Kentucky (for the purpose of broadcasting into Ohio). Lewis commands us to get out of his sightline, saying with mock fury, “I am a professional freaking actor!”
He’s not. Though he tells us that he did play the lead in Aladdin, his third-grade musical. He still remembers the songs. Lewis isn’t the natural performer Terry is. So Terry fusses and frets over his every intonation, spitting the line as he wants Lewis to say it, telling him to punch out certain syllables, trying to spark up Lewis’s monotone to bring the hellfire regarding Obama. “C’mon, pathos! That sonofabitch—he’s a baby killer!”
“Like you have testicles!” Beacham yells, piling on from the control room.
Lewis tries to impersonate a pro-life pitbull, with mixed results. Terry flips out when people keep flushing the toilet upstairs, mucking up the sound. You can feel the tension. To cut it, Lewis breaks into one of his old numbers from Aladdin: “A whole new world . . . ”
But I never see Terry quite so worked up as the night he shoots the main portion of the Nightmare Ad. In a back bedroom at Ascalon, Madeline Scoular, a part-time actress in from Florida, who also happens to be the daughter of Terry’s vice-presidential candidate Missy Smith, lies in a bed. She will be filmed having the nightmare, which will be intercut with all the visuals of dead babies (and dead Christians/Jews for the alternative Islamo-cut), as Obama atrocities are detailed in voiceover. She will then bolt awake in sweaty terror, crying that she can’t vote for Obama again.
It’s not Masterpiece Theatre, but Madeline is a pro. She’s used to doing commercials for the likes of Honda Pilots or Johnsonville Sausages. Though she’s pro-life personally (her infant is crying down the hallway), this is her first baby-killer ad. But even though she knows what she’s doing, Terry and Ryan (who shoots the commercial with a handheld) leave nothing to chance. An eerie blue light is set up outside her window. A fogger is turned on in the bathroom, coating the room in a mist. Onlookers are sent to the kitchen, because Terry doesn’t want the room to get “too hot.” There’s a crucifix behind the bed, but Terry wonders if they should put up a Star of David too (for South Florida voters).
Terry has selected Madeline’s pajama tank-top to get just the right contrast and tasteful level of cheesecake. Madeline is an attractive woman, and Terry thinks it’s a force multiplier to let her look a “little saucy.”
“But not too much sauce,” cautions Ryan.
“Put the blanket down just a whisker,” Terry says. “I want to get her breasts in a couple of these shots . . . bosoms is the old English word. I apologize, ma’am.” “Personalities is what my grandmother used to call them,” says Madeline, forgivingly.
Terry is so keyed up for the shoot, he breaks into impromptu prayer. He prays earnestly, beseechingly. He asks the Lord to stoke Ryan’s incredible creativity and make this “the highlight of his filmmaking career.” He prays God will “bless this dear lady,” and thanks Him for her “beauty and articulateness.” He asks the Father for an anointing, that the Lord will turn this commercial into a sledgehammer to avenge dead babies. He’s prayed for everyone and everything in the room, except for me. After Terry says “Amen,” I tell him that I’m a little hurt he left me out.
“I don’t give a damn about you,” he says with clockwork timing, as he grabs the water bottle he will use to spray Madeline in Obama-nightmare sweat.
One afternoon, Terry meets me at a local Mexican joint. The place is no great shakes—its décor is of the 10-point-buck-painted-on-a-Budweiser-mirror variety. All the food comes covered in puddles of yellow cheese, and the salsa tastes straight out of an Old El Paso jar. But Terry eyes the place like a pie-eyed kid, saying he’s never been here before. “How’s that?” I ask him. There’s only about three sit-down restaurants in Romney.
“Money,” he says. The Ascalon army has all their necessities covered, but everything they raise goes back into the baby-saving operation. His associates don’t draw salaries, and with all his kids, eating out is expensive. As we talk over the course of lunch and many other interviews, Terry replays his life. He speaks of his childhood in Rochester, N.Y., where he was raised by two public school teachers. They were both liberals and “pagans,” he jokes, but always had a social conscience. He remembers looking out of his house, seeing his parents get arrested for blockading their residential street in order to get the speed limit lowered.
Terry was a good student, but school bored him. He was more interested in smoking pot, taking mushrooms, and becoming a rock’n’roll star. So when he announced to his father he was dropping out just months shy of graduation to hitchhike across America, which is exactly what he did, his dad beat him until he was black and blue. His father was a mean alcoholic who’d been abandoned by his own parents, and who roughed up his mother. He could also be very loving. They later reconciled, and by the end of his dad’s life, he was working the pro-life cause with his son. As Terry’s written of his dad, “From some men, we learn what to do. From some men, we learn what not to do. From some men, we learn both.”
After being robbed of all his possessions while sleeping on a beach in Galveston, Terry returned home from his hitchhiking odyssey, cleaned up, and worked a series of jobs, from ice-cream jerk to used-car salesman—the latter of which is a detail that never escapes the notice of snarky profilers. “It’s honorable work,” Terry says, even though his bosses loathed him, since he always leveled with customers, telling them what cars not to buy.
Terry found religion, went to Elim Bible Institute, and moved through some fervent Pentecostal circles. Wishing to join the ministry, he married his fiancée (Cindy), against his better judgment, when a senior mentor at his church pressed an impressionable Terry hard to do so, saying it was necessary if he wanted to continue down the ministerial path. Though Terry says he gave it a go for 18 years, they were a bad match. His marriage was filled with unhappiness he resisted escaping, since God-fearing Pentecostals don’t get divorced, though he eventually did.
From his father, he received the gift of anger, both his blessing and his curse. He knows he uses it wrongly sometimes—he regrets plenty of things he has said over the years. He went to war against his own adopted son, Jamiel, whose sister Tila he saved when their prostitute mother was on her way to have an abortion. As she was walking into the clinic, he pleaded with her not to do it. He told their mother he could help her. She stopped in her tracks and said, “I prayed this morning—if you don’t want me to kill this baby, you gotta send someone to help me.”
“I’m the answer to your prayers,” said Terry.
After years of serving as foster parents to Tila and her older brother Jamiel, as well as to their half-sister Ebony, the Terrys adopted Jamiel and Tila. (Ebony was an adult by then.) Terry has always preached against gay marriage and most things gay. So when Jamiel came out in 2004 in an article in Out, blasting his father, Terry fired back with a piece entitled “My Prodigal Son the Homosexual.” Terry expresses remorse about the public airing, but not about the message. “I didn’t make the rules, and I can’t change them,” Terry says.
He and Jamiel eventually patched it up—and Jamiel stayed pro-life, even if he also remained proudly gay. Terry plays me a funny voicemail he saved from Jamiel in which the latter tells Terry he loves him, a call made shortly before Jamiel was killed last November in a head-on collision. At the time of his death, Terry had been planning on embarking on a speaking tour with him, hashing out their differences with more mutual respect than they’d done the first time around. “I miss him,” he says. “I can’t believe he’s gone. I haven’t had the chance to grieve properly. I wake up in the morning and just start crying. I’ll be driving down the road and think, ‘I’d like to talk to Jamiel.’ But Jamiel’s not here.”
If the anger he felt at his son wasn’t terribly constructive, Terry recalls the first time his righteous anger was kindled. In Rochester, when he was a kid, several girls had been abducted, raped, and murdered. One day, while riding with his mother down a road where one of the crimes occurred, she told Terry she’d heard that one of the girls had temporarily escaped her captor, and had run down that very road, naked and crying. Scores of cars passed, but no one stopped.
“I remember as a little boy,” says Terry, “being so filled with rage at those people that it made my insides hurt. They were responsible for her death. If any single one of them had stopped, she’d still be alive. It’s ingrained in my soul that some of the greatest crimes men commit are sins of omission. You won’t stop? You believe abortion is murder but you don’t do anything? It revolts me to this day. I harbored that in my heart.”
Eventually, Terry got the call to be the one who stops. It’s a line of work that caused even his pro-choice aunts (one of whom worked for Planned Parenthood) to publicly oppose him. Terry had been planning on going to the mission field. But a woman came to his church, telling of a show she’d seen on television about “child-killing.” He couldn’t stop thinking about it. And when they broke up into little prayer groups, says Terry, “As crazy as this sounds, I saw this scroll come down in my mind’s eye with instructions on what I was to do. I was to recruit people to go to abortion mills by the thousands. To help women in crisis have their babies adopted instead of killed. I was to attempt to reinstill in the American public a love of human life.”
I ask Terry how the scroll looked. “Something like a Baskerville font,” he says. “Maybe Baskerville Old Face. It wasn’t Arial. God knows I hate stark, boring lines.”
Shortly thereafter, he started Operation Rescue. The rest is history. The thousands arrested blockading abortion clinics in the late ’80s and early ’90s spawned a generation of activists. Abortion briefly showed up as the number one issue in election exit polls (these days, it’s rarely mentioned). Terry’s life was madness: a never-ending tour of courts and jails, constant appearances on television, moving money around like a mob boss, putting assets and supporters’ donations in his wife’s name to shield them from the injunctions and court orders and judgments that were coming at Terry and his organization like a hail of bullets which couldn’t be dodged forever.
In 1991, Operation Rescue officially disbanded, “going underground,” Terry said, in an effort to dodge pro-choice lawyers. Many have laid claim to the name since, and Terry is now in a protracted and vicious trademark dispute with Troy Newman, the current president of Operation Rescue, who he maintains is guilty of “identity theft.” (Newman claims Terry abandoned the name.)
By 1994, several abortion doctors had been shot. (Though Terry is always quick to remind reporters that the doctors killed thousands of innocents, he is a staunch advocate of nonviolence.) Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which carried heavy prison time for violators, and which essentially put an end to the Operation Rescue method of obstructing clinics. “It broke our backs,” Terry says.
Terry ignored the judgments that came down against him in cases brought by NOW and Planned Parenthood. He didn’t want to “give a penny to the child killers.” Consequently, in the late ’90s he was forced to file for bankruptcy, claiming $1.6 million in debt from a decade’s worth of judgments and legal fees. He lost pretty much everything. “NOW even got my frequent flyer miles,” he laments. “I told them they could use them to fly to hell.”
The picture grew bleaker by the time of his divorce in 1999, a huge no-no in the Pentecostal tradition. “My divorce was hell,” he says. Terry had spent plenty of time railing against divorce in pharisaical fashion himself (“I had to eat humble pie,” he says), and old friends turned on him. His longtime pastor put out a curious letter of censure, even though Terry had already quit the church months earlier, with inferences that Terry was unfaithful to his first wife and had left her for the younger woman he eventually married. A charge both Terry and his second wife, Andrea, who met Terry while working for one of his failed congressional campaigns, adamantly deny. “We didn’t even have sex until we were married,” Terry overshares. “Two women in 35 years is pretty boring. But how can you prove a negative?”
The misery continued for years. Old Operation Rescue rivals scorched him on the Internet, seeming to delight in every rumor, from infidelity to financial mismanagement to his use of “alcohol and cigarettes.” Some continue doing so to this day, though several of Terry’s friends, including clergymen, rushed to his defense. Many of his longtime Protestant donors grew angry at him for becoming Catholic. Many Catholics probably wish he’d reconvert to Protestantism, as Terry’s a regular burr under the bishops’ saddles.
Recently, Terry says, he solicited a bishop for an endorsement of his anti-child-killing campaign. The bishop declined. “He told me face-to-face, ‘I love what you’re doing, but can’t endorse you.’ Why? Because he was afraid he would lose his 501(c)(3) status. He said we can’t oppose candidates by name. I said John the Baptist preached against Herod by name. He said, ‘John the Baptist did not have property. If he were alive today and had to worry about the property of the Catholic church, he wouldn’t say the things he said.’ I about crapped my pants. This is a Catholic bishop!”
Before his slow climb back from bankruptcy (friends eventually came to his aid, and he restarted his ministry, founding the Society for Truth and Justice in 2003), Terry even resumed selling used cars, failing miserably. With a broken marriage, a busted career, and a tarnished legacy, he remembers walking down a wharf in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I’m crying,” he says. “I’m saying my life is over, just over. And I see a duck come out swimming, with four ducklings right behind her. I felt like God said to me, ‘You’re going to get remarried, and you’re going to have four children.’ This time it wasn’t a scroll. Just a duck.”
Terry says his two sustaining influences were his wife and his music. “Music is part of the fiber of my soul,” says Randall, who before becoming an anti-abortion crusader, wanted to be both a concert pianist and a rock star. In his younger days, he’d felt God asked him to put music aside to save babies—both of which, he says, require total dedication to be any good at. But he felt God gave the green light to his original passion again when he took a yearlong Nashville sabbatical and knocked out a country and a gospel album. These twin influences, he says, “helped me find my voice again.” It’s a loud voice. One that he says knows “makes me a caricature.” As I find Terry agreeable company in person—he’s quick to laugh, a generous conversationalist, thoughtful about many things you wouldn’t think he’d be thoughtful about—I ask him why he doesn’t show his noncaricature side more often.
Because, Terry says, “I’m the dude that holds the line. I’m the public stand for righteousness, but the private extension of mercy.” He knows what critics think of him, and with his musician’s ear, knows how he sounds. But he doesn’t care: “I play to an audience of one. I do what I do because I fear God and picture the day of judgment. On the day of judgment, I will give an account to my maker for the things that I did, and for the things that I failed to do. The things that I said. And the things that I failed to say. So I’m trying—desperately—to do and say the things that make my maker happy. Not my fellow human beings.”
In near-nightly jam sessions in his basement, Terry’s audience is slightly bigger than an audience of one. The rotating cast at Ascalon gathers around, drinking and dancing and calling out requests. I sit at his basement bar, upon which rests a statue of Moses. Nursing my Maker’s, I listen to Terry. He’s a seriously good pianist, and has serviceable guitar chops too. He plays covers like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” but prefers playing his own songs, which sound better live than on his CDs. I try to locate Terry musically, and ask him his influences. As a player, he names several obscure blues musicians.
But as a vocalist, “I love Barry Manilow,” he says. And he’s dead serious. “We went and saw him in concert and he was awesome. I love Barbra Streisand too.” I tell him that for somebody who rails against homosexuality so frequently, he has really gay taste in music. “Let me tell you something right now,” he responds. “I love Barbra Streisand. I love showtunes. I love to cook. And I’m not gay. I feel so conflicted.”
One night, Terry decides to put a little band together. Andrew, his producer, is on electronic drums, since nobody can find the cymbals for the real drums. David Lewis takes lead guitar, and David’s dad, who is a mailman back home, plays a little rhythm guitar—very little. Terry’s 7-year-old son, Justin, an impish kid with a mane of blonde surfer locks, bangs on a discarded snare drum with his hands.
Terry tells everyone to follow his lead on piano, and takes off on a bluesy romp. The others try to hang with him, but nobody has his musicianship. David can play, but seems to have little idea what to do when Terry calls out for a solo. Andrew’s irregular bass pedal sounds like a wounded wildebeest limping to its death. Justin’s hand-drumming is drowning Andrew out with an entirely different Afro- Caribbean rhythm. And the mailman isn’t delivering, looking as though he wishes someone would unplug his amp.
The Psalmist enjoined us to make a joyful noise, but this is more like an awful racket. It sounds like something Army PSYOPs would play through loudspeakers to annoy a jihadist out of his hole. But Terry’s fingers are ripping and rolling and striding over the ivories. He smiles at the cacophonous trainwreck surrounding him, then ignores it and plays on. Somehow, he finds the thread of his song, even if he’s the only one who can hear it.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.