Sins of a Preacher Man

When Bill Price entered a room full of politicians, his droopy eyes would light up, his blasé demeanor would turn commanding. The same thing happened when a TV camera started rolling or a reporter questioned his mission or his motives. Off camera, he spoke softly, measuring his words, but stick a microphone in front of him, and his aim was true. His gift, if you chose to call it that, was to agitate with style, to attack with self-righteous indignation, and he gave the anti-abortion movement in Texas its first clamorous voice to fight pro-choice advocates.

Yet as the spokesman of a movement replete with zealots and purists, he came across as a voice of moderation--reasonable, practical, and accessible. By convincing evangelical Christians to join the fray, he helped broaden the base of what had historically been a Catholic cause. He shunned violence in his own movement, castigating those who either openly or by their silence endorsed it. Accused of being a headline grabber, a scene stealer, a sound-bite hog (which made him a hell of a fund-raiser), he had a habit of publicly flogging politicians when they fudged on their "pro-life" convictions or just plain pissed him off. Whether you were for or against abortion rights, when he spoke, you listened. Often, you were afraid not to.

As he stood before the 900 guests at the Intercontinental Hotel in Dallas on October 2, Bill Price, at age 51, had much to celebrate. His organization, Texans United for Life (TUL), was commemorating its 25th anniversary. Price had been its executive director and president for the past 17 years. The Texas Legislature had recently passed a law requiring parents to be notified when their minor daughters sought abortions, handing his movement its biggest victory since Roe vs. Wade. Seated next to him on the dais were those who made it possible: Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and state Sens. Chris Harris and Florence Shapiro.

No matter that there was some dissension about Shapiro within Texans United for Life's board of directors--one or two purists who believed that an anti-abortion organization had no business honoring a woman who was arguably pro-choice. Price listened to the board members' complaints but had no intention of changing his plans. For too many years, he had preached to the choir. He wanted to reach the hearts and minds of those in the middle. A majority of his board supported his efforts--or so he thought.

It was no mistake that he had eliminated any reference to "life" as the theme of the banquet. Instead he called the event "Hope for Families," stressing a change in the direction of Texans United for Life away from confrontation and toward education. His fund-raising pitch made that point loud and clear: Teach teens that abstinence before marriage is the only effective method of birth control, and abortion rates plummet.

Although Price hoped to raise $200,000 by 2000 for these school programs, the response that evening was somewhat tepid. Rallying the troops around education seemed a stretch for those who would rather do battle with the forces of evil.

The evening closed with a surprise tribute to Price, who received a commemorative scrapbook. Among the many letters of appreciation from politicians, friends, and ministers was one from TUL board chairman Tom Brown.

"My life has been blessed by God," Brown wrote. "One of his greatest gifts to me was when he allowed me to meet you, and get to know and work with you for almost 20 years...You have been a visionary, inspirational leader, hard worker, and supportive friend...I look forward to working with you...for years to come."

Three months later, Brown led a board investigation into allegations that Price had abused alcohol, prescription drugs, and the trust of TUL by using his expense account to misappropriate funds. Whatever reservoir of goodwill he had accumulated with the board over the last 17 years didn't run deep. On February 16, Price resigned. Not only did the board unanimously accept his resignation, but each member agreed that the financial condition of TUL was so precarious that there was no choice but to close its doors.

Price denies he is guilty of any wrongdoing and claims a disgruntled employee and her best friend on the board overthrew him in a political coup. Both have now formed a new entity using TUL donor lists, assets, and programming. Price maintains that the board rushed to judgment against him, refusing to give him a hearing. How could the board dispatch him so hastily after 17 years of devotion to its cause? Had he so alienated its members that they would give more credence to the schemes of a vengeful few? Had ideological fissures steaming below the surface made it just a matter of time before the purists on his board undid the man in the middle? Or was Price so self-aggrandizing that he saw himself as the movement and its money as his own?