Genevieve Seese Library

Church of the Saviour Library

The preacher and the presidents : Billy Graham in the White House

Review by Kathleen Szabo on April 23, 2009

Categories: Biographies

The Preacher and the Presidents
by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Talk given to Towers Class 2008.

Gandhi said, ?Anyone who believes that religion and politics aren?t connected doesn?t understand either.? Billy Graham knows this better than anyone. TIME magazine reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy wanted to know why the presidents called Graham, how he managed to be so close for so long and still maintain his honor. Graham gave the authors carte blanche, only asking that they tell the truth. He no longer gives opinions on controversial issues. He?s no longer the cocky young man who bragged before the 1952 presidential election that he could swing 16 million evangelical votes just by saying the word. Ministering to presidents was part of his ministry to the world. He was extremely trusting, some say gullible, and saw the best in powerful people. He created a safe zone for presidents where they could confide in him, be vulnerable without fear of rebuke or leaking to the press. It?s a testament to his bi-partisanship that in 1969 he spent the last weekend of Johnson?s presidency in the White House and stayed over to spend the first night of the Nixon presidency, as well. He was the most famous preacher on earth. Every president could gain something by just standing next to him. Eisenhower enlisted religion?s rising star in the war against ?Godless communism?; Kennedy invited him for a round of golf to reassure Protestants about the prospect of a Catholic president; Johnson used him to convince conservative Baptists that the War on Poverty was scripturally sound. Reagan sent him to help persuade pro-Israel evangelicals that it was safe to sell AWACS to Saudi Arabia. George Bush I wanted him by his side the night before the first Gulf War, Clinton at Oklahoma City, George W. Bush after 9/11, and just about every one of them on Inauguration Day. They may have come to love him and need him; but that didn?t mean they couldn?t use him.
Graham was fascinated by politics. The temptation of power was hard to resist and he submitted to it more often than he should have. He argued that being a friend of presidents gave him entr?into communist and other non-Christian countries. His ministry helped him revive evangelicalism in the mid 20th century and usher it into the 21st.

The Cold War started in 1949. When William Randolph Hearst heard him speak against communism he ordered his papers to ?Puff Graham.? Now he was a celebrity. Everyone wanted his opinion. Henry Luce of Time Inc. became his prime supporter. He was invited to Washington D. C. to open the House of Representatives with a prayer. A group of senators urged him to bring his crusade to Washington. He told Luce, ?The Lord is working on our behalf. This is the opening wedge I talked to you about.? He believed that ?if we can instill Christ in the oval office and Capital Hill; the nation?s problems will take care of themselves.? Graham believed that each president was chosen by God and prayed sincerely for all of them. But this belief made it hard for him to challenge them.
Graham saw that there was a great spiritual hunger in America. He invited his fellow evangelicals to come out of their pious isolation and join him in the mainstream. He wanted President Truman?s help. When he met Truman at the White House Graham offered to give the president a feel for the mood of the country. He offered to be of service anytime he was asked. Truman never took him up on his offer. He was convinced that Graham was a charlatan.

Billy Graham was the one who finally convinced Eisenhower to run for president. Eisenhower was a lapsed Christian, but he believed in old-time values. Graham helped him create a mainstream Christian identity for himself. Graham?s answer to why he talks to political leaders is this: ?I sit down with them and give them the Gospel of Jesus Chris straight from the shoulder. God has opened the door and I believe it is my duty to talk to these leaders for Christ.? Graham decided that evangelicals should become a bloc of political influence. Unlike today, their only agenda was that ?good Christian men come out of the shadows and take an active role in politics.? They also supported a strong stand against Godless communism and the promotion of spiritual values at home. His friends and especially his wife warned him against getting too involved with politics.
Eisenhower?s campaign slogan was ?Faith in God and country.? Eisenhower followed Lincoln?s example and made religion a high priority. Lincoln said he was on God?s side, but Eisenhower wanted God to be on America?s side in the Cold War. The USSR was ?Godless? and America was ?chosen?. Graham saw it as Christ vs. the Anti-Christ. Ike would be America?s spiritual commander. Graham suggested a National Day of Prayer. The inauguration parade featured ?God?s float?. Eisenhower opened his cabinet meetings with a prayer. One time as he was leaving a cabinet meeting he swore, ### $$$$, we forgot to pray. The first National Prayer Breakfast was instituted in 1953. ?Under God? was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. In 1956 ?In God We Trust? was added to all U.S. currency and in 1957 it became the national motto. Eisenhower believed faith was the way to fight the cold war, not arms. Faith was what allowed democracy to function as it was meant to. Religion became more socially acceptable. Reinhold Niebuhr of the Christian Century became a harsh critic. He claimed that Graham and Eisenhower were offering a watered-down spirituality - the American way of life rather than Christianity.

Richard Nixon was the thorn in Billy Graham?s side. Their?s was a very complex relationship. Graham brought out the best in him. He saw a spiritual side of Nixon. He deeply loved and was completely devoted to him. Nixon brought out the worst in Graham. Graham couldn?t resist the temptation to offer advice to his friend and Nixon couldn?t resist taking it and asking for more ? a blanket benediction from the man who would forgive just about anything. One side of Nixon loved and protected Graham the other side deceived and used him. Graham believed him to be the best-qualified man for the presidency and a Christian gentleman.
He thought Nixon?s reticence to speak about religion was Quaker modesty. He tried to push him to pray, trust God and read the Bible. But, as time went by he came to doubt his faith ever existed. He began shepherding Nixon to the Oval Office almost from the moment they met. When Eisenhower was trying to push Nixon aside before the 1956 election Graham put out the word with religious leaders to ask Nixon to speaking engagements. They became fast friends. In 1960 Graham worked on political strategy with Nixon. He urged Nixon to attend church regularly, not just for his soul, but because it looked good for a future president. Nixon used Graham as a political barometer who could give him a feel for the country. Graham urged Nixon to speak out on public piety as Eisenhower had. After the election Nixon sent Graham a letter telling him, ?Your political advice has been as wise as any I have received from any man I know.?

The only time Kennedy met with Graham was for a photo-op just before his inauguration to help mend the rift between Catholics and Protestants. In 1963, after the race riots in Birmingham, he asked Graham to hold an integrated crusade there. It was the largest integrated assembly in Alabama?s history.

After the assassination Johnson was desperate for help. People wondered how the country could go on without J.F.K. Johnson admitted that the ?whole thing was almost unbearable.? One of the people he reached out to was Billy Graham. Graham helped relieve Johnson?s deep insecurity that he didn?t measure up. Graham seemed to absorb Johnson?s resentment of the Kennedy myth machinery. He never missed a chance to mention to reporters that Johnson had inherited the Vietnam ?mess?, or that Johnson succeeded in pushing through legislation that Kennedy had been unable to manage. What Johnson really needed was love. No president who accomplished so much was hated so much, especially by those who he felt he?d helped the most. Johnson told Walter Cronkite, ?Not many people in this country love me, but that preacher there loves me.? ?When Graham was at the White House, Lucy Johnson said, ?the whole mood in the residence changed. The level of anxiety was diffused.? Lady Bird said, ?My husband had a very strong sense of need, to be sure he was on the right path ? a need for an anchor. Billy was a comfort.? Johnson censored himself when Graham was around. He had a deep respect for the ministry. Advisor Jack Valenti observed, ?Graham was unique in American political life. He asked nothing, he wanted nothing, he had no agenda. Every president understood that and so they luxuriated in his embrace. You can?t put a price on it.? The two men became close friends. ?My father was a man of enormous personal faith,? said Lucy Johnson. ?Graham was one of the few people who kept him from forgetting what he learned on his mother?s lap.? But ?He was always afraid of death and wanted a preacher with him when he died,? Graham said. ?He was never sure if he had been truly saved.?
Billy Graham and Martin Luther King had an understanding. King would work for civil rights in the streets and Graham would hold integrated crusades. Johnson shared Graham?s aversion to King?s civil disobedience. He deeply believed in the sanctity of the law. He was proud of the civil rights legislation he had steered through Congress. Graham believed his mission was to proclaim the Gospel and apply it to the social conditions around him. He was caught between the growing activism of mainline Protestant churches and the hostility of fundamentalists who disapproved of his integrated crusades and ecumenical outreach. The Civil Rights Bill passed in 1964 and Selma happened in 1965. Graham himself seemed ready to take up arms. ?Maybe I haven?t done all I could or should do,? he said. Johnson asked Graham to preach across Alabama, telling him, ?You?re the only man who can settle this thing down there.? Graham preached surrounded by police. He condemned Southern churches, ?They should lead the way, but they?re not doing it.? Watching black and white men and women receive the invitation together one of the ministers on the platform whispered, ?This is the answer to our problems.? Selma marked the high point in Graham?s civil rights efforts. As the battle grew more radical and violent he retreated. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, but change was hard. When Watts erupted five days later Johnson was stunned. He saw his reforms in jeopardy not only by his opponents, but by those he was trying to help.
It was over the Vietnam War that King broke with Johnson. He believed that America could never invest the necessary funds to rehabilitate its poor as long as the war drained those funds. Graham rebuked him for tying the two issues together. Johnson was between a rock and a hard place. He knew the war would damage his Great Society efforts but to withdraw would make America seem like an appeaser to the world. At first Graham supported Johnson on the war, reassuring him that he was fighting a noble cause. But as time went by he became less and less sure. But he agreed with Johnson in believing the protests prolonged the war. He ministered to Johnson who was now being consumed by the struggle. He absolved him from the responsibility of starting the war. Johnson was being attacked from all sides. The most progressive administration ever was even being attacked by liberals and civil rights leaders. When asked what it was like to send young men to their deaths. He answered that it was like drinking carbolic acid every morning. On March 31, 1968 Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. He had confided in Graham the year before. ?I?ve already had one heart attack. I don?t think it?s fair to the people or my party.? Graham continued to minister to him for the rest of his life. At the end of his presidency Johnson wrote to Graham, ?No one will ever fully know how you helped lighten my load or how much warmth you brought into our house. But I know.? Johnson asked him to preach at his funeral and to make sure the message got through because, ?when a president dies people listen.? ?Just tell ?em what Christianity is all about, how they can be sure they can go to heaven. I want you to preach the Gospel, but somewhere in there, tell ?em a few things I did for this country.? When the time came Graham said, ?To him the Great Society was a realistic hope. It was his destiny to be involved in a war be never wanted and search for a peace he didn?t life to see. No one would have welcomed peace more than he.?

Nixon returns
It cost Billy Graham a lot to see the good in Richard Nixon. By the time Graham realized the truth, his image had been battered, his confidence shaken, and his ministry damaged.
In 1968 the country was in upheaval. Graham promised to stay out of politics. But with Nixon in the race he couldn?t resist the temptation. He announced at his Oregon crusade that, ?There is no American I admire more than Richard Nixon.? He believed Nixon would set a religious example, and calm the waters. He felt comfortable to be making these statements because he knew Nixon so well.
People debate how much Nixon used Graham for his purposes. But simply being his friend was the greatest gift Graham could bestow. Nixon attended Graham?s Pittsburgh crusade. Graham told the crowds that their friendship was ?one of the most cherished I have ever had.? The crusade was televised on the day before the election. Nixon sent Graham to the White House with a message of support for Johnson. This neutralized Johnson in the campaign. He made sure Humphrey stayed in line. LBJ?s ego kept him from realizing that he had been had. Another reason was that the message had been sent via Billy Graham. The week after Nixon was inaugurated he instituted the White House church service. Nixon decided against the Quaker meeting since they were strongly anti-war and given the fact that anyone could speak during the services, he was afraid of what they might say. Graham preached the first sermon. Critics charged that Nixon wanted God on his own terms. Graham defended him by citing the use of house churches in the 1st century. ?In reality?, says Charles Colson, ?these events were great opportunities for arm-twisting, fund-raising, and loyalty-testing.? Nixon requested that they develop a list of rich people with strong religious interest to be invited. When he was complimented on his performance at a prayer breakfast, Nixon responded that he had just given them ?some church stuff.? The services were perfect marketing places for political favors. Preachers were picked who focused on individual salvation more than social reform. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote an essay, ?The King?s Chapel and the King?s Court.? ?Suggesting that the country?s problems were essentially spiritual,? he argued, ?simply gave the rich an excuse to ignore the poor, with a content-free, unchallenging, ratifying faith.? The theology in the services was so watered down it was almost meaningless. Graham acted as pastor to Nixon and gave him a lot of spiritual comfort. He?d run ideas by Graham and feel better after talking them through. Nixon respected Graham?s political abilities and trusted his advice. Graham was a great barometer. He knew what was going on in the country. Nixon was one of the first to spot the power of the evangelical vote, which is another reason Graham was important to him. Colson would romance religious leaders who came to the White House. He?d dazzle them with the Oval Office and said they were about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups he worked with. Graham was so eager to enlist Nixon in the cause of revival that he was all but blind to any parallel agenda from the White House.
When Nixon announced in 1970 that the U.S. had invaded Cambodia the campuses exploded in protest. Colleges shut down. Democrats denounced him, there was even dissent in the cabinet, State Dept. and Foreign Service. The stock market had its worst week in 40 years. ?The very fabric of government,? wrote Henry Kissinger, ?was falling apart.? Nixon needed Graham?s private reassurance and public support. Kissinger was afraid Nixon was headed for a breakdown. Graham asked Nixon to speak at his crusade at the U. of Tennessee. It would turn out to be the largest public meeting in the history of the state. ?I?m for change,? Graham said, ?but the Bible teaches us to obey authority.? The crowd was largely friendly and TIME called it one of Nixon?s more effective speeches and even more so when it was televised with the protests cut. Graham asked for loyalty to the president.
While Graham was presiding over Honor America Day, an apolitical family picnic and national birthday party on the Washington Mall, the White House was cooking up the ?Huston Plan?. It would have suspended whatever laws interfered with the president?s protection of national security, allowing him to wiretap, read mail, and search homes through a clandestine super-police system. Nixon revoked the plan, because of objections from J. Edgar Hoover. But the message was clear: do what you need to do to stop leaks, track down traitors, punish enemies, and ensure domestic tranquility.
Graham knew nothing of this. His testimony on behalf of the president even extended around the world. When Nixon announced his intention to visit Peking the Taiwanese were worried. They invited Graham to Taipei to talk. Graham was the only person in the U.S. that they would listen to. Nixon would use Graham again to send and receive messages from other world leaders.
It?s impossible to know the single moment when Graham became a consultant to Nixon?s 1972 reelection campaign. It might be the night when he was invited to join the president?s inner circle for dinner on the presidential yacht. H.R.Haldeman remembers him saying that he firmly believed that the president must be re-elected or there wouldn?t be any hope for the country. He even talked his friend Mark Hatfield, now an outspoken war critic, from challenging Nixon for the nomination. Years later when presented him with the evidence of how he had been used he said he felt, ?like a sheep led to slaughter.?
But he wasn?t treated like a sheep. His calls were returned, his favors granted, his stature respected. Haldeman maintained regular contact with him. When Nixon?s advisors proposed a Billy Graham Day, Graham demurred. He worried that the event would be a target for war protestors looking to embarrass the president. But that was exactly what the White House wanted: their man, persecuted by his enemies as he sought to laud Billy Graham. Nixon asked him personally and Graham obeyed. Unbeknownst to him, Federal agents arrived weeks before the event to comb the campuses for radical groups that might use the occasion to confront the president. A memo to Haldeman stated that the potential demonstrators will be violent, they will have extremely obscene signs. It will not only be directed at Nixon, but also toward Billy Graham. In the margin of the memo Haldemen wrote, ?Good? at the prospect of obscene signs and underlined ?that would target Graham as well? and wrote ?Great? in the margin. Nixon got from Billy Graham Day just what he wanted.
On Jan. 31, 1972 Graham met with Nixon in the Oval Office. There was considerable discussion about the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media and agreement that something had to be done. Graham said, ?This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country?s going to go down the drain.? ?If you get re-elected then we might be able to do something.? Graham said that he had learned to lean a bit, cover up his feelings when he was with liberals. ?Jews swarm around me, are friendly to me, because they know I am friendly to Israel. They don?t know how I really feel about what they?re doing to this country.? It didn?t matter that Graham?s entire career refuted the charge of anti-Semitism. When the tape came to light 30 years later it did more harm to his reputation than anything in his public life. It was not only what he said, but what he did not. Here was a chance to make a moral witness. If the whole point of maintaining his access to the Oval Office was to bring the Gospel, than surely that demanded he speak up. But in this case he didn?t. One aide likened it to locker-room talk with Graham joining in. When it all became public Graham went to a meeting of Jewish leaders and told them he would crawl to them and ask their forgiveness. ?I don?t understand it,? Graham said of his conduct, ?I can?t even remember it, I mean I remember, I guess the meeting, but I can?t remember what I said because I never felt that way. I never thought that way and I was just trying to agree with what he said or something. I don?t know.? This meeting began Graham?s relationship with Nixon?s inner circle. In the conversations, memos and messages one can sense the White House?s respect for Graham?s political connections and acumen; and his pleasure at being on the inside. Nixon used Graham to diffuse hostility from conservatives against his upcoming trip to China. He used him to try to keep Wallace in the Democratic Party so he wouldn?t be a spoiler in the coming election. When asked how to counter McGovern?s appeal to ministers and church leaders Graham put them in touch with 50 major Christian youth groups and their immense mailing lists. Graham had remained devoted to Lyndon Johnson since he?d left office and had helped persuade the Nixon White House to treat him well. So Johnson was soft on Nixon and had nothing but contempt for McGovern. Nixon again used Graham to neutralize Johnson.
As Watergate unfolded in the fall of 1972 Graham believed it was all a misunderstanding. A Christianity Today editor noted, ?Graham insists he?s not campaigning for Nixon but allows that he will probably go down in history as one of the country?s greatest presidents.? To McGovern?s charges that Nixon was corrupt, Graham said, ?I know the president as well as anyone outside his immediate family. I have known him since 1950 and I have great confidence in his personal honesty. I voted for him because I know what he is made of.? ?He was born to be president.?
Nixon won by a landslide. Now Graham was being criticized in evangelical circles. Their greatest hero was challenging a tradition of clerical distance from politics that dated from colonial days. The more often he defended Nixon the bigger target he became. Even his closest associates began to fear that he was being compromised by power, telling the king what he wanted to hear. Graham responded that he didn?t always agree with the president, but he didn?t know all the facts available to the president. ?People have no idea what I say to the president, if they did I?d never have this entry again.? ?I?ve tried to keep the relationship on spiritual terms.? When the tapes became public he sounded shocked and contrite. The real test came after Nixon?s reelection. Nixon, against the objections of his air force, began the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam. Its scale was unprecedented. The country rose up. Religious leaders pleaded with him to stop. They also appealed to Billy Graham to criticize the policy. Hundreds of letters and telegrams poured in, many from ministers he had worked with over the years. But Graham would not oblige them. He was walking a thin line. If he denounced the president he would lose the opportunity to preach the gospel to the most powerful man on earth. He issued a statement. ?I am convinced that God has called me to be a New Testament evangelist, not and Old Testament prophet! While some may interpret an evangelist to be primarily a social reformer or political activist, I do not! My primary goal is to proclaim the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The basic problem of man is within his own heart.? Many felt that his refusal to take a stand on the war spoke as loudly as words. Preaching at the White House church service the next day, Graham talked about peace, but warned that there will never be perfect peace until the 2nd coming of Christ.
He defended Nixon?s greatness and goodness. He also made a statement telling Americans to engage in some deep soul-searching about their society and goals as a nation. He called for revival and repentance. This brought him under fire again. Many thought ?it was untenable that he should go to such lengths to support and defend Nixon and now, as the president?s guilt became clear, cast it into the larger shadows of original sin and shared human weakness.? All through this period Graham had little contact with Nixon. After the Saturday Night Massacre he was asked if he thought Nixon should resign. He replied, ?If a criminal act has taken place and he is guilty, then he should be impeached?.. I pray for the president. I cry for him. If he asked me for spiritual advice, I?d give it to him. But he hasn?t.?
By this time Nixon was in bad shape. Pat Nixon asked Graham back to the White House. He and Nixon talked privately about Watergate. He gave an interview to Christianity Today that was picked up by major papers the week after the visit. He was harder on Nixon than he had ever been before. Even his ?complete faith in the President?s integrity? was qualified with ?until there is more proof to the contrary.? He denied that Nixon had used him as a tool. He said that Nixon?s aides thought that his reelection was the most important thing in the world because they thought peace depended on it. Although sincere, they rationalized that the ends justified the means. But if that was so, the permissive culture of the times bore some blame. He admitted that he had made his own mistakes. After the interview Graham?s critics from the right were furious. Norman Vincent Peale wrote to say how disgusted he was.
Graham believed Nixon should confess his sins and ask forgiveness at the upcoming National Prayer Breakfast. Nixon refused. Afterward Graham wrote a letter to him that was as close to a rebuke as Graham would allow himself. He expressed his disappointment and ended with, ?There is one thing far greater than being President ? and that is being a committed child of God.?
As the truth became known Billy Graham had to face the possibility that he had been fooled or fooled himself all these years. He had never questioned Nixon?s piety. ?I remember how many times he quoted his mother,? Graham said. ?He saw her with a Bible ?and I think that influenced my thinking.? That very first time we met and played golf, ?we talked a great deal about the Lord and I just assumed?..? After reading the transcripts of the Oval Office conversations, Graham became physically sick. His family worried for him. ?I wanted to believe the best about him for as long as I could,? he said. ?When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me.? ?Those tapes revealed a man I never knew.? ?I wonder whether I might have exaggerated his spirituality in my own mind. Where religion was concerned with him, it was not always easy to tell the difference between the spiritual and the sentimental. In retrospect, whenever he spoke about the Lord, it was in pretty general terms.?
His relationship with the presidency was never the same after Nixon but he never abandoned his role. The presidents were like family to him. He loved them, forgave them and tried to be there for them, no matter what. He couldn?t abandon them if he wanted to. The next presidents called for him. But he never again allowed himself to become caught up in partisan politics. After trying for so long to bring religion and politics together he had learned that they belonged apart.

Kathleen Szabo, May 2008