Billy Graham: Preacher to the Presidents
CBN.com A new book by TimeMagazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (Center Street, August 2007) tells the story of an extraordinary private ministry to America's most powerful political leaders.
No other man or woman was in a position to see the presidents, and the presidency so intimately over five decades. Presidents called Graham in for photo ops. They called for comfort. They asked about death and salvation; about sin, and forgiveness. And they called him for political advice, too. With that came an almost unbearable temptation: how far could a pastor go to help a friend — and not become part of the political game?
Meticulously researched and informed by multiple in-depth interviews with Graham, Presidents Ford, Carter, George H. W. Bush and Clinton, and many of their aides and family members, The Preacher and the Presidents reveals how powerful men from the worlds of faith and politics met and courted each other. How they depended on and trusted each other. And how they used each other, too.
In many cases the friendships existed long before the presidents came to power, the authors reveal. In 1952 Graham was already such a rising religious star that there was talk in Hollywood of making a movie about him—starring his friend Ronald Reagan. Over the years he spent holidays with the Johnsons at their Texas ranch, and summer weekends in Maine with the Bush family. Eisenhower on his deathbed asked Graham to help him reconcile with Nixon, whose daughter was engaged to marry Ike’s grandson. The week before Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, he tracked Graham down to talk it through; that conversation, he told the authors, was crucial. Nancy Reagan called him to the hospital the day her husband was shot; 23 years later he was the first person she called when he died. When Hillary Clinton felt no one in the world understood how she could forgive her husband, Graham pointedly praised her for it. “He was just very personally there for me,” Senator Clinton told the authors.
The presidents, and the First Ladies, could summon Graham to the White House confident that their secrets were safe. “I think they began to realize that if I didn’t quote them, they could talk to me about their feelings and problems and pray with me,’ he told the authors. “Their personal lives, some of them, were difficult. But I loved them all. I knew that they had burdens beyond anything I could ever know or understand.”
The presidents’ obvious affection for Graham did not prevent them from using him as a valuable political ally and private American ambassador as well. Kennedy called him for a golf game four days before his inauguration, to help reassure Protestants about having a Catholic president; Johnson dispatched him to Alabama to help promote civil rights; Nixon sent him to Taiwan to reassure Chiang Kai Shek about the change in US China policy. Carter called for help with arms control. Over the opposition of the National Security staff, Reagan encouraged Graham’s outreach to Moscow; George H.W. Bush asked Graham to come keep vigil at the White House the night before the first Gulf War. Bill Clinton used him to deliver private messages to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
In the interviews, Graham admitted that his friendships with politicians sometimes drew him too deep into temporal affairs. One letter to Nixon during the 1960 campaign weighed the virtues of various possible running mates; at the end Graham asks that Nixon destroy it after reading. “I did give political advice, and I shouldn’t have,” Graham told the authors, and after the crushing revelations of Watergate, Graham resolved to try and stop diving into the political fray. His meetings with Reagan were almost entirely private, under the radar. Just before Reagan’s swearing in, Graham declared that "evangelicals can't be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle, to preach to all the people, right and left. I haven't been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will in the future." But in the 2000 campaign, Graham would issue a 11th hour endorsement of George W. Bush in the final 48 hours of that race. And he did it in the state of Florida.
At a time when the nation is increasingly split over the place of religion in public life, The Preacher and the Presidents reveals how the world’s most powerful men and the world’s most famous evangelist knit faith and politics together.
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