As countless obituaries remind us today, Billy Graham knew every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama; he was a White House visitor for decades. The Southern Baptist preacher known as “America’s pastor” was by turns counselor, confessor and confidant to chief executives from both parties.
The first visit, to Truman in 1950, did not go well. When Graham and fellow evangelists revealed the details of their conversation, and staged a prayer session on the White House lawn, Truman labeled him a “counterfeit,” seeing him as more a publicity-seeking opportunist than a pastor. But Graham persisted, seeing the national stage as possibly his biggest chance to influence America’s spiritual life—and even the course of the nation’s history.
Across the decades, he gained unique access to the power centers of American life. Publishing magnates William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce helped propel him to fame; financial and business leaders saw his message as a powerful antidote to the appeals of “socialistic” politics, while more liberal political figures saw the benefits of bonding with America’s favorite religious figure. More and more, Graham came to embody the tension between the spiritual necessity of speaking Biblical truth to power, and the compromises required by access to power itself.
In this regard, of all Graham’s White House visits, none was more intriguing—and revealing—than the one he made on September 8, 1968.
This was a visit with a message to President Lyndon B. Johnson from one of the two men battling to succeed him. And it reveals just how much Graham, the most prominent religious figure of his time, was pulled in by the temptations of temporal power. At the time, Richard Nixon was the Republican presidential nominee, with a good chance of taking the White House away from a Democratic Party deeply divided over the war in Vietnam. His relationship with Graham stretched back decades; Nixon’s militant Cold War anticommunism had been a perfect match with Graham’s “Christianity vs. Communism” message of the 1950s and ’60s.
And the message Graham brought was tailormade for a president plagued by doubts over the war, and about his place in history.
Nixon wants to you to know, Graham told LBJ, that he greatly admires all of your hard work; you are, he said, “the hardest working president in 140 years.” He told Johnson that if Nixon won and ended the Vietnam War, he would give Johnson “a major share of credit” for a settlement and would “do everything to make you … a place in history.”
For his part, Johnson promised Nixon his full cooperation should he win the White House.
It was a message unlike anything out of our political past: the nominee of the opposition party sending a trusted envoy with words of admiration, and the promise of a kinder judgment from history.
It was a message destined to fall on receptive ears. LBJ’s unhappiness with Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey—his own vice president—was an open secret in Washington. He was convinced that Nixon was closer to him on Vietnam than Humphrey; so much so that Defense Secretary Clark Clifford came to believe that LBJ actually wanted Nixon to win.
Why would Billy Graham, of all people, have been selected to deliver this most sensitive of political messages? In fact, there were good reasons.
There were strong ties between Johnson and Graham; a scheduled five-minute meeting shortly after JFK’s assassination stretched for five hours, and Johnson had often turned to Graham for spiritual strength. And Graham’s ties to Richard Nixon were stronger. In 1960, when he wrote John F. Kennedy to assure him—misleadingly—that he was not going to use JFK’s Roman Catholicism against him, he also wrote that he would likely vote for Nixon because of longstanding personal bonds. In using Graham as his emissary, Nixon knew that Johnson would receive him as a messenger he could trust. He’d know with absolute certainty that Graham was faithfully delivering Nixon’s assurances.
Only someone with a claim to stand outside of politics, someone with a cloak of spiritual respectability, could be trusted with so unusual a test. It is hard to imagine such a message being delivered by, say, an emissary of the Republican Party or Nixon’s campaign.
But of course the message wasn’t outside of politics at all: It was deeply political, even opportunistic, and, as we know now, factually dubious. It was later revealed that Nixon’s campaign was actually working to undermine a peace initiative.
It is one example of just how much “America’s pastor” was a staunch political ally of one particular American, Richard Nixon. At the 1969 inaugural, Graham delivered a prayer that read, in part: “We recognize, O Lord, that in Thy sovereignty Thou has permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history”—a sentiment that sounded to some as if he was asserting that Nixon was God’s choice. His support for the war in Vietnam was so enthusiastic that on April 15,1969, after meeting with missionaries from Vietnam, Graham sent a memo to the White House urging that, if the peace talks in Paris failed, Nixon should bomb the dikes that held back floodwaters in the North. This, said Graham, “could overnight destroy the economy of North Vietnam.” It would also have destroyed countless villages, sending as many as a million civilians to their deaths.
He became even more instrumental to Nixon, moving well beyond spiritual counselor. In 1972, he peppered the White House with memos on everything from campaign strategy to stagecraft.
His most infamous “bonding” with Nixon happened in 1972, when a White House conversation turned to the subject of Jewish domination of the media. Nixon was a notorious anti-Semite—a fact that became clearer after the Watergate tapes—and Graham played to the president’s prejudices with enthusiasm. He called that alleged media control “a stranglehold,” mused about “doing something about it” in a second Nixon term, and added, “A lot of Jews are great friends of mine,’’ Graham said. ”They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.”
”You must not let them know,” Nixon replied.
These repellent remarks may well indicate a core of anti-Semitism; but they can also be read as Graham’s effort to curry favor with Nixon by feeding his darker impulses, much as Henry Kissinger did throughout Nixon’s White House tenure. That reading, in turn, tells us much about the willingness, even eagerness, of a spiritual guide to preserve his access to temporal power. Had Graham chastised Nixon for such views, or even declined to endorse them, it might have made him more of a spiritual shepherd, but lessened Graham’s access to the inner circles of power.
Late in life, Graham came to view his choices differently. In a 2011 interview with Christianity Today, he said, “I … would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
He also spoke in very different terms about international matters, strongly endorsing efforts toward disarmament, was open about the idea that Christianity might not be the only road to salvation, and distanced himself from the Moral Majority and other manifestations of the Religious Right.
But the road Billy Graham took during his prime raises a fascinating question: What if Graham, with his undeniable magnetism, had chosen a different path? What if his insistence on integrated religious gatherings—a provocative posture in the South of the 1950s— had been accompanied by a forthright campaign for integration in schools, and in a campaign for the vote? What if he had found the boardrooms and offices of the political elite less appealing than the injunction to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?” We might have been remembering him as we do another Southern minister, who led a life 60 years shorter, but who moved mountains.
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