Overnight fame can unsteady a twenty-nine-year-old, especially when the fame stirs as much resentment as admiration. Randall Terry is becoming famous for leading attacks on abortion clinics throughout the US. “Why do you think I don’t read most of the things written about me?” Terry asks after I have just watched him read and reread with ferocious attentiveness an unfavorable article about him in a California paper. The question, he shows by waiting for an answer, is not rhetorical but almost inquisitorial. “I don’t know,” I answer. “Perhaps to preserve your equanimity.” He looks blank. “What’s equanimity?” He does not go into the storm of publicity ballasted by much knowledge.
We have been talking on a plane about to land in Long Beach, California, where Terry and his associates will lead what they call “rescues” at several abortion clinics, sealing all entrances with layer upon layer of their bodies. A member of the crew comes from the flight deck to tell Terry there are demonstrators against him massed outside the airport; the airport security will meet him at the plane, take his luggage off, and spirit him out a side fence. He nods agreement to this, then worries that the demonstrators will think him and his associates “wimps,” and discusses the idea of returning to the demonstrators from the outside. He does not flee from attention, even of the most hostile sort.
There are no casual encounters with Randall Terry. He turns them all into contests of some sort—clashes of moral standards, games, probings. Buying a ticket in an airport, he asks the airline employee to remove a travel poster showing (from the back) a woman in Hawaii wearing nothing but a hula skirt. “It is demeaning to women.” The man takes it down. On the plane, he lets a flight attendant know that he is going to be on television and asks if there is a brush to remove the lint from his suit. She ends up removing the lint herself, by dabbing Scotch tape at it. With another flight attendant he banters over getting extra food. He asks a third if she is wearing tinted contact lenses (she is). None of them will forget Randall Terry was on her plane. In a deposition being taken by a woman lawyer for the National Organization for Women, when questioned about his wife’s name, Terry asked the lawyer if her last name is her husband’s (as it ought to be).
He interviews his interviewers. Asked what I do when I am not writing articles about him, I tell him I teach American history. “Do you think the American Revolution was influenced more by the Renaissance or by the Reformation?” I am not aware it was the product of either. “Do you believe in providence in history?” Not, I reply, in a manifest providence. “What does that mean?” Adopting terms I thought would make sense in his world, I point out that Saint Augustine denied that …