Sins of a Preacher Man

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But these skirmishes paled in comparison with the civil war Price started in the state Republican Party over the seating of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as a delegate to the '96 Republican National Convention.

That war had its roots in the movement of social conservatives into the ranks of the state Republican Party hierarchy. That process began during the Reagan years as the Religious Right ousted country-club Republicans, beating them at a grassroots level, precinct by precinct. Groups like the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Texans United for Life turned the Republican platform into their manifesto, and by 1994, their denizens dominated the party machinery. The abortion issue was the glue that held them together and the question wasn't if you were pro-life, but how pro-life were you? A one-exception politician (life of the mother) was certainly preferable to a three-exception one (mother's life, rape, and incest). And someone like Hutchison, who had a fleeting history of voting pro-choice, was anathema to people like Bill Price.

Price says that prior to the 1996 state GOP convention, he and the other anti-abortion leaders in the state made a deal: No one--not even a U.S. senator--would become a delegate to the national convention unless their pro-life bona fides were beyond reproach. "I knew I was taking on the entire party establishment, Phil Gramm, Hutchison, even the other pro-life groups abandoned me," he says. "But I had to draw that line in the sand."

The only group that didn't abandon him was the media, and he made the most of it as a trail of reporters and cameramen dogged him daily on the convention floor. Gramm branded him a "bully" and a "blowhard." Although Hutchison would gain a delegate slot, Price says he made his point. "I wanted to make Hutchison radioactive so Bob Dole wouldn't consider her for a running mate."

Others, even within his movement, believed Price was just staging the media event as a fund-raising tool, something he had a habit of doing. Days after the Hutchison showdown, TUL sent out a fund-raising letter, asking for money to send Price to the national convention to seal the fate of Hutchison, as if he were the only true defender of the faith.

Oddly, Price didn't sound like such a purist when it came to the position he staked out for himself within his own movement. By 1988, Operation Rescue had begun to engage in civil disobedience, grabbing headlines as their volunteer zealots blocked the entrances to abortion clinics and were arrested for trespassing and vandalism. Price came out hard and often against Operation Rescue, publicly condemning their tactics as a slippery slope toward violence.

By 1993, radical elements within the anti-abortion movement grew increasingly frustrated. Blockades of clinics led to arson; harassment of abortionists led to murder. Price's press releases grew bolder. He accused even mainstream anti-abortion opponents of willful silence and demanded they condemn the violence openly. Four members of Price's own board were sympathetic to Operation Rescue, but Price rarely consulted his board when he took a position.

"I determined it was a total abdication of leadership to take my hands off the steering wheel and let a radical fringe drive the bus," Price says. "Only I couldn't get anybody to come on board with me."

Until Price spoke out, the anti-abortion movement had always been a paragon of unity; one pro-life leader criticizing another was considered an act of heresy. Price became the target not only of Operation Rescue, but of other anti-abortion leaders who labeled him a traitor, a cancerous "white cell" attacking the body of the movement. At the state GOP convention in Fort Worth in 1994, wanted posters bearing his photo hung from the rafters branding him an enemy of the pro-life movement.

Price was celebrated in the media as a voice of reason within a movement that could excuse the killing of abortion doctors as justifiable homicide. Although some anti-abortion groups accused him of using Operation Rescue as a fund-raising ploy, Price says he lost more donors over the issue than he gained. But the movement was failing legislatively, and he kept to his new, more moderate position, moving away from hardball tactics. "I saw politicians distancing themselves from us. Violence was hardening many Americans against the pro-life message," he says. "I wanted to put a kindlier, gentler face on the pro-life movement."

Price believed that attempting to ban abortions outright was futile, but chipping away at it with legislation that restricted the procedure was within reach.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald