On May 14, on the eve of the Senate debate on President Bush’s far-right judicial nominees, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Tony Perkins in which he laid out his vision of the coming apocalyptic battle between Bush’s nominees, people of faith and Democrats who are determined to wage a “campaign against orthodox religious views.” Only if the Senate votes for Bush’s appointments, Perkins argued, will the judiciary eventually come to respect the law. “In their zeal to preserve an imperial judiciary,” he wrote, “liberals have taken abuse of the confirmation process to a new low.”
Time and again, Perkins, the president of the Christian right lobbying powerhouse the Family Research Council, hits the theme that it is Democrats, liberals and judges who are out of step with the law. Meanwhile, Perkins plays up his former career as a cop to buttress his authority: “A former police officer,” his Family Research Council biography states, “Mr. Perkins brings a unique perspective to the public policy process.” But an incident from Perkins’s past sheds light on his real record when it comes to the law–an episode that Perkins has conspicuously omitted from his biography.
More than a decade ago, Tony Perkins pledged to uphold an oath as a reserve officer in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police force. He violated this oath in 1992 when, according to a witness, he failed to report an illegal conspiracy by antiabortion activists to his superiors, then publicly criticized police tactics designed to stop the activists from restricting access to a local abortion clinic. As a result of these actions, he was suspended from duty and subsequently quit.
The long, hot summer of 1992 marked the climax of antiabortion protests in Baton Rouge. Declaring a “Summer of Purpose,” organizers from Operation Rescue came to town with the intent of shutting down the city’s Delta Women’s Clinic–a longtime target of antiabortion militants, who firebombed it in 1985. Operation Rescue shepherded hundreds of shock troops from local fundamentalist churches onto clinic property, where they staged daily protest vigils, confronted patients and occasionally engaged in violent acts.
At the time, Tony Perkins was dividing his time between his duties as a volunteer for the Baton Rouge police and his job as a reporter for “Woody Vision,” a local right-wing television station owned by his mentor, Republican State Representative Woody Jenkins. During the “Summer of Purpose,” Perkins and his camera crew were a frequent presence outside the clinic.
According to Victor Sachse, a classical record shop owner in Baton Rouge who volunteered as a patient escort for Delta Women’s Clinic during the protests, Perkins’s reporting was so consistently slanted and inflammatory that the clinic demanded his removal from its grounds.
“Perkins never dealt with the fact that people were illegally trying to bar access to the clinic,” Sachse told me. “He never talked about the fact that the protesters who were there, even when they weren’t breaking the law by going onto the property, would yell at women entering the clinic. They would walk right in front of them to intimidate them and do things like imitating the baby screaming out to the mom, ‘Please don’t murder me.’ Perkins wasn’t even trying to be objective, and we didn’t see any reason to let him stay on clinic property.”
The protest might have caused far worse damage to the clinic and the city’s reputation were it not for the actions of Baton Rouge’s newly appointed police chief, Sgt. Greg Phares. On the advice of an officer he had dispatched to observe Operation Rescue protests in Buffalo, New York, Phares ordered the erection of a chain-link fence to separate antiabortion forces from prochoice counterprotesters who had also gathered outside the clinic. Phares called in sheriff’s deputies and prison guards to shore up his ranks. Though antiabortion activists bitterly attacked him in the media, some privately respected his level-headed handling of the situation. “Greg has done a yeoman’s job with what he’s had to work with,” Richmond Odom, a lawyer for the antiabortion protesters, told the Baton Rouge Advocate on April 10, 1994.
Perkins, however, was outspoken in his criticism, even violating departmental policy to write a commentary for a right-wing Christian publication denouncing the police department’s tactics, according to the Advocate. When Perkins learned of plans for violent tactics by antiabortion protesters to break through police lines and send waves of protesters onto clinic grounds, he neglected to inform his superiors on the force, Sachse told me. Instead, Perkins waited outside the clinic with a camera crew from Woody Vision, poised to report on the action as it unfolded. Scores of antiabortion protesters were arrested that da, according to Sachse.
Perkins’s dismissal, Sachse said, was promptly requested by the director of police intelligence, Lieut. Lynn Averette, who interacted frequently with Sachse outside the clinic. Reached by phone, Averette, now an officer with the Louisiana State Police, declined to comment. “It would be unethical for me to discuss this,” he said. Phares, who is still with the force but no longer police chief, explained that he asked Perkins to surrender his reserve commission for six months; when his suspension ended, Perkins resigned.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tony,” Phares told me. “He’s a dynamic character with strong opinions. And though I don’t agree with all of his opinions, I think he’s got a lot of guts.” Phares says that he and Perkins parted on “amicable” terms.
But Phares’s kind words were not reciprocated. In the wake of his suspension, Perkins criticized Phares’s performance as police chief. “I think he was green for the position,” Perkins remarked to the Advocate in 1994. Perkins has refused to respond to calls from The Nation for comment on the circumstances of his departure from the force, which the Advocate reported as a “dismissal.”
Afterward, supported by the local conservative movement, Perkins was elected to two terms as a state representative, becoming one of Louisiana’s most conservative legislators. He authored the state’s covenant marriage law–the first in the nation–which offered couples a marriage contract that could only be broken for extraordinary reasons. And he continued his antiabortion activism. During a campaign (ultimately successful) to increase government regulation of abortion clinics in the state, Perkins showed films on the floor of the legislature that supposedly revealed unsanitary conditions at Delta Women’s Clinic. “That pretty much squelched any debate,” he remarked afterward.
Perkins had bigger objectives in mind. He was being groomed for national office by his mentor, Woody Jenkins. In 1996, as the campaign manager for Jenkins’s US Senate campaign, Perkins paid $82,500 for the phone bank list of former gubernatorial candidate and ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke [see “Justice Sunday Preachers,” The Nation, posted April 26]. When Perkins ran for the Republican nomination for the Senate in 2002, the Duke connection resurfaced in the local press, helping doom his campaign to a fourth-place finish in the primaries.
In 2003, with his political career seemingly at a dead end, Perkins moved to Washington, DC, to head the Family Research Council. As the Christian right’s point man on Capitol Hill, Perkins now has patrons including the majority leaders of both chambers of Congress. According to Roll Call, Senate majority leader Bill Frist donated $5,000 through his political action committee to Perkins’s failed Senate campaign. Curiously, the donation was received in December 2004–two years after Perkins’s campaign had sputtered to a halt. Perkins returned the favor this April when he invited Frist to address “Justice Sunday,” a nationally televised rally designed to galvanize the Christian right’s support for President Bush’s controversial judicial nominees. Perkins had billed the event as an effort to “stop this unprecedented filibuster of people of faith.”
Perkins has also been instrumental in helping embattled House majority leader Tom DeLay deflect charges of ethical violations. Before an audience of conservative luminaries at the Family Research Council’s Washington briefing on March 17, DeLay cast the investigation of his ethical breaches as a baseless assault on the conservative agenda. “This is exactly the issue that’s going on in America that–attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others,” DeLay told the crowd. Following him on the dais, Perkins urged attendees to pray for DeLay.
Now, as he pushes for the confirmation of Bush’s judicial picks, Perkins presents himself as a faithful advocate on constitutional law. He encourages Republican senators to exercise what he calls “the constitutional option” and eliminate the filibuster, which he claims “has no origin in the US Constitution.” He has accused Senate minority leader Harry Reid of “possibly illegal” activity for publicly referring to the FBI file of one of Bush’s nominees, Judge Henry Saad. And on April 4, Perkins signed a letter by a Republican front group, the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters, which urged the Senate to return “to the majority vote on Advice and Consent the Constitution mandates.” Along with Perkins and a who’s who of the conservative movement, the letter was also signed by the Rev. Keith Tucci, a former Operation Rescue leader who was arrested for assaulting a woman outside the Delta Women’s Clinic in 1992.
As a national conservative leader in Bush’s Washington, Perkins never acknowledges his suspension and subsequent resignation from the Baton Rouge police force during the “Summer of Purpose.” Having airbrushed his résumé, the man who violated the oath he swore to uphold as a law enforcement officer now lectures the Senate on constitutional law. Perhaps it is this contradiction that makes Tony Perkins’s perspective so unique.