Randall Terry Capitalizes on Tea Party Movement

November 27, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry wears a grim reaper costume as he leads a protest against the House health care reform bill. Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry wears a grim reaper costume as he leads a protest against the House health care reform bill.

Randall Terry is giving a tour of his office, a small room on the ground floor of the $1.3 million home he rents in northern Virginia. The room is packed. Every inch of wall space is taken up by books or personal treasures–stones “liberated from places where Muslim armies destroyed Christian churches,” the complete works of Winston Churchill, the complete works of Theodore Roosevelt, small metal busts of the men themselves. Terry reaches to a top shelf and grabs one volume of Muhammad al-Tabari’s history of Islam. “It’s one of the definitive histories,” says Terry. “I believe that Islam is a threat to the world, and I want to address it.”

Getting ready to leave the room — he has to finish a paper he’s writing about “Augustinian realism” — Terry grabs for something else. It’s a small plastic shark with a flashlight attached to its head, a gift from Terry’s daughter. He flips on the light and tries out his best impression of Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” trilogy of slapstick comedies.

“C’mon, people!” he says. “Gotta have the data! Can I please have a shark with a frickin’ laser beam?”

The man who personified the anti-abortion rights movement of the 1980s and 1990s loves to kid around. It disarms reporters, and it wins over the activists who use the lower level of Terry’s home as the base for Operation Rescue-Insurrecta Nex. (In Latin, it roughly means “Insurrection Until Death.”) In May, People for the American Way released video of Terry closing a press conference on the murdered abortionist George Tiller — Tiller “reaped what he sowed,” said Terry. In response, Terry convened a new press conference where he served Guinness and chicken wings.

For several years, especially after Terry served as the spokesman for the parents of the late Terri Schiavo in 2005, his personality and his antics, as well as his financial and legal decisions, led him to be ostracized from the movement. That’s fine by him — he’s suing the current leadership of Operation Rescue, his original organization, and without much prompting he’ll call leaders of groups like Americans United for Life “a bunch of harlots.” While they deride him or distance themselves from him, Terry is capitalizing on the conservative uprising against President Obama and congressional Democrats. When cameras show up to cover a Tea Party or a health care protest, Terry and his activists are there. If reporters pretend his protests don’t exist, Terry’s small staff churn out their own video and post it on YouTube.

“I think there is a certain element of the media that does not want us to be seen,” said Terry. According to him, the current and unexpected political trouble that pro-abortion rights activists have found themselves in — chiefly the Stupak Amendment that prohibits abortion funding in a public health care plan — is the result of ostentatious and unyielding pressure from activists like him. The newfound political role of Catholic bishops? That’s their attempt to undo the damage they did themselves by not opposing Barack Obama in 2008. “We’re not here for a place at the table. We’re here to take the table and smash it, turn it into firewood.”

Sometimes, rhetoric like that gets Terry in front of the camera. The office walls of Operation Rescue-Insurrecta Nex are decorated with newspaper clippings–mostly front pages–about Terry and his successes. More files of newspaper and magazine covers are stacked on bookshelves. Terry and his activists draw a clean line between that kind of coverage and coverage in “the ghetto press,” the Catholic and anti-abortion rights media, whose readers presumably made up their minds about this kind of activism years ago**. **Their strategy–a combination of slapstick skits, counter-protests, and sit-ins–has increasingly won the attention of liberal blogs hungry for images of conservatives gone wild. On August 25, Terry and three other members of Operation Rescue-Insurrecta Nex attended an town hall meeting in Reston, Va. The media coverage went almost exactly the way they wanted. Before the event began, Terry and the others acted out a skit in which Terry, playing a doctor, teamed up with a Barack Obama impersonator to “murder” babies and an old woman. Once inside, Terry shouted down Howard Dean before being forcibly removed from the venue.

“Our goal was to keep Dean from talking,” said Terry. “And it worked! He didn’t talk!”

Missy Smith, a longtime activist who has taken a large role in Operation Rescue-Insurrecta Nex, recreated the slogans that got them kicked out. “‘Obama! Abortion is murder!’” said Smith. “They said they heard it in the back of the room. It was very cool.”

After that, the skits got wilder. Terry would dress up as the grim reaper, pleading with passersby to have abortions. Joshua Reading, a 28-year-old seminary graduate who recently joined the flock, recorded a Halloween-themed YouTube video asking activists to create effigies of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “burning in hell.” It was so successful that it was condemned by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It even won respect from Jill Stanek, a prominent anti-abortion rights activist and Terry critic. “While the other side scoffs at Terry,” she wrote, “and we pro-lifers back away in embarrassment, the day may actually come when Pelosi and Reid find themselves in hell and remember this. Then it won’t be so funny.”

On October 29, TalkingPointsMemo posted four and a half minutes of footage featuring Terry and other protesters acting out a skit mocking Reid and Pelosi. On November 5, after joining the “Super Bowl of Freedom” held on the Capitol steps to rally opposition to the Democrats’ health care reform bill, the activists marched over to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office and tore up pages from the bill. Capitol police arrested them one by one; it was all captured for their YouTube account.

“We told security that we were going to deliver the bills to [Rep.] Ron Paul [R-Tex],” laughed Missy Smith. “It’s incredible that we got them through.”

Smith admitted, with some regret, that the protest got little media attention after the tragedy at Fort Hood took over the headlines. But with every media hit they get, Terry’s activists are absolutely convinced that their approach, an aggressive approach, is working.

“We make the national news, outside of the ghetto press,” said Reading. “Our message reaches everyone.”

Andrew Beacham, a young, bearded activist who has been ejected from four of President Obama’s speeches–including his University of Notre Dame commencement speech and a health care event in Maryland–was just as adamant. He came into Terry’s fold after a disappointing stint as a Republican activist and a Tea Party organizer in Indiana. Suiting up and heckling the president of the United States, he said, made him aware of how “in history, there are always people who are willing to step up and be the tip of the spear.” Shouting down the president of the United States is more effective than nearly any form of public protest, said Beacham, especially when the president is hesitant about how to respond.

“The teleprompter doesn’t tell him how to respond to heckler,” laughed George Offerman, an activist who’d brought his home-brewed beer to Terry’s home.

The media savvy among Operation Rescue-Insurrecta Nex activists comes across immediately. They talk about Gallup polls that show support for legal abortion dropping, Politico stories about Democratic infighting, and Onion videos that make President Obama look like a fool. Near the end of their meeting with TWI, they watched episode nine of Terry’s self-produced television series “Insurrecta Nex.” Filmed in a small Ohio studio before an audience of Terry’s supporters–Offerman, Reading, and Terry’s wife Andrea all make appearances–the episodes are stylistic echoes of Glenn Beck’s Fox News show. Terry tells jokes and tries on funny voices as he moves around the camera, retelling American history for lessons on how to “stomp out legalized child-killing.” One episode about the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party closes with Terry literally “dancing on the grave” of “Roe v. Wade.”

All of the media training, and all of the new interest from reporters and liberal blogs, will play a part in Terry’s next project. In 2010, Operation Rescue-Insurrecta Nex activists will run for federal office in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Terry ran for Congress in 1998, mounting an anti-tax, economic conservative campaign with almost no talk of abortion. “Everyone in the district knew me as Mr. Pro-Life,” Terry told TWI. “I wanted them to know that I could represent them in Washington on something more than dead babies.” The plan for 2010 is just the opposite: It’s to get TV ads running in the beltway, with brutal imagery of aborted fetuses beaming into voters’ homes.

“We’re going to re-define the pro-life debate in the 2010 election,” said Terry. “If we spend $500,000 or $3 million dollars on media in these races, the media will be apoplectic. They will not be able to ignore us.”