Billy Graham breezed through Heaven’s gate, waving at Saint Peter like they were old friends. “You’ve been cleared for decades, Billy. That’s why you didn’t go through the judgment thing like the others.” Billy thanked him, saying it was even faster than TSA PreCheck. Then Billy remembered something, mentioning that he had preached Richard Nixon’s funeral back in 1994. “Peter,” Billy says, “I said that Richard was in Heaven. Was I right?” Saint Peter shakes his head and says, “Back when your friend was getting his start in politics, he told someone that ‘If you can’t lie, you’ll never go anywhere.’ Obviously he wasn’t thinking about going here when he said that.” Billy seemed unhappy, which isn’t supposed to happen there, but then the old preacher regained his excitement. “How about Johnny and June Carter Cash? Are they here?” “Yes,” Saint Peter replied, “the music here has been great since they arrived. And Billy, don’t worry too much about Nixon. He has tens of millions of Republicans down there to keep him company.”
Bob Dylan was adamant. In “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he said the choice was yours: you could serve the devil or you could serve the Lord. “Gotta Serve Somebody” leaped off Slow Train Coming, the first of Dylan’s three Christian albums released between 1979 and 1981. Dylan’s fans, and indeed, most of the music world, were shocked by Dylan’s recent conversion to Christianity. Those shocked were also either irritated, dismayed, overjoyed, or simply intrigued. Those intrigued, especially those who had followed his nineteen years as a recording artist, knew Dylan had shifted musical gears many times, allowing for new styles, topics and observations. Dylan’s fusion of the Gospel message and strident rock beat was his latest revelation, so to speak. As with the Apostle Paul, Dylan was not ashamed of the Gospel and he wasn’t afraid to make the Gospel rock. Young Christians had long wondered why God wasn’t getting any of the good music. That matter was now resolved. Slow Train Coming hit the streets on August 20, 1979, shortly after Billy Graham completed his Milwaukee crusade, drawing over 100,000 at County Stadium in five nights. It was Graham’s 259th crusade since 1947. Graham wasn’t ashamed of the Gospel either. He’d go anywhere to bear witness, even taking a humorous angle with Woody Allen on television. He’d maintain a relentless pace, his own never-ending tour, for the better part of the next 25 years. Still on the road, headed for another joint.
Usually the next joint Graham played would be a giant sports arena, with a capacity of over 50,000, which in many cases, would not hold all who wanted to see and hear Graham. Whether one shared the faith or not, Graham was a force behind the pulpit, waving that Bible, possessed of the ability to talk to just one, and tens of thousands — all at once. Even before he took the message of Christ to heart, Dylan wanted to hear Billy Graham deliver it. In his 2015 interview with AARP magazine, Dylan made clear how impressed he was with Graham.
“When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the ’50s or ’60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified — volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution — when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30 or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody. He could fill Giants Stadium more than even the Giants football team. Seems like a long time ago. Long before Mick Jagger sang his first note or Bruce strapped on his first guitar — that’s some of the part of rock ’n’ roll that I retained. I had to. I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.”
It wasn’t just those already possessing the faith who wanted to see and hear Graham. As Dylan could phrase it, those who got faith or got unbelief were all fascinated by him. The rich and powerful were more than taken with Graham. They not only wanted to see him — they wanted to be seen with him. They thought a photo with Billy Graham conveyed an endorsement from God. Politicians sure understood that. An endorsement from above the clouds could put you over on election day. Some politicians understood it was about more than getting votes. Graham wasn’t some hack preacher from the sticks spewing forth like Elmer Gantry. He was articulate, pleasant, and good looking, especially in those snazzy suits. Graham first made Gallup’s list of Most Admired Men in 1955 and would make the list 61 more times. The politicians knew they could profit from their friendship with Billy Graham. And they knew Graham would be happy to minister unto them.
Curtain Risin’ on A New Age . . . . John F. Kennedy said he ran for president because the presidency is the center of action. Billy Graham understood that very well. The presidency was indeed the center of action. The president, whether he pored over briefing papers in the Oval Office all day or pressed the flesh at rallies, was always the center of attention. Wherever he went was the important place at the time. Early in his ministry, Graham realized it would be good if he basked in the glow of President Harry S. Truman. Unlike future presidents, Truman was hardly interested in Graham’s glow. But on a summer day in 1950, Graham and three of his closest aides showed up at the White House in order to meet President Truman. The president was not that impressed with his celebrated visitor. He reminded Graham that he too was a Baptist. Graham thought that was an opening for him to deliver a little sermon. Not so with Harry. Just as Graham was warming up, Truman interrupted. Graham remembered that Truman said “he lived by the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule, and then repeated he was a Baptist.” Harry wasn’t ready to let up, “If it just weren’t for those goddam newspapers after me every day, and that columnist Drew Pearson, the sorry s.o.b. . . .” Finally, Billy thought a prayer was in order. Truman said it could do no harm, so Graham asked God to shed his blessings on Truman and his administration. Graham then left and Truman, relieved, thought that would be the end of it. But not yet. While meeting with reporters outside the White House, Graham revealed what he said to the president, including the bit about the prayer. Graham and his aides, encouraged by the reporters, got on their knees for a prayer on the White House lawn. Of course, photographs were taken and Graham wasn’t welcome in Truman’s White House again. A decade later, in conversation with journalist Merle Miller, Truman still fumed over Graham, referring to him as “one of those counterfeits…. He claims he’s a friend of all the presidents, but he was never a friend of mine when I was president. I just don’t go for people like that. All he’s interested in is getting his name in the paper.”
Graham knew the next day he abused the privilege Truman allowed him. One doesn’t go out and reveal what was just said between you and the president. That didn’t stop him, however, from continuing to write Truman, declaring, “I have every confidence in you” and then offering his services as a private pollster, noting he followed “political trends very carefully and would be delighted at any time to advise you on my findings among the people.” Billy Graham could not help himself. Less than two years after the awkward White House meeting, he invited Truman to his Washington Crusade. He wanted Truman on the stage with the other VIPs, forgetting that in April 1951, he had heaped praises on General Douglas MacArthur shortly after the president fired him. Graham went as far as to equate MacArthur with George Washington. Truman had taken as much of MacArthur’s impudence as he could; after all there was a war going on. Years later, Truman put it this way, “I fired him because he didn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals.”
I’m Pledging My Time To You . . . . Rejected by Truman, Graham consoled himself with the knowledge that a new president would be inaugurated on January 20, 1953. And maybe he’d have a role in leading that next president to victory! So he made General Dwight D. Eisenhower his new pen pal. Why not start at the top? Eisenhower (Ike) was perhaps the most admired man in the free world for helping to lead the United States and its allies to victory in World War II. Two letters from Graham to Eisenhower made it clear: the nation needed him in the Oval Office. In his second letter to Ike, Billy pitched hard, delivering the political equivalent of the hymn of invitation. He told of a recent conversation with a judge who worried that if Washington was not cleaned out in the next couple of years that we would “enter a period of chaos that could bring about our downfall.” Graham, a great salesman, went with a hard close. The urgency was palpable: “Sometimes I wonder who is going to win the battle first; the barbarians beating at the gate from without, or the termites of immorality from within.”
Graham said he’d be praying that God would guide him “in the greatest decision of your life,” noting “upon this decision could well rest the destiny of the Western World.” Eisenhower said it “was the damnedest letter I ever got” and arranged for a meeting with Graham. Soon enough Billy would have a president’s ear.
Fortunately for Graham, Eisenhower didn’t share Truman’s innate distrust of evangelists. Ike didn’t dwell on the image of traveling preachers being hucksters. He needed a pastor he could talk to. Billy Graham happily filled the bill. The Reverend spelled out Christ’s plan for salvation. It rang true to Ike and he accepted Christ as his personal savior. Eisenhower was the only president ever baptized (in the Presbyterian Church) during his time in office. His baptism was private, not a media event. He believed one’s personal faith was personal — but still he urged Americans to trust in God, even if his theological take was, at best, ill-defined. The president once declared, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Well, okay, Ike.
Thinking About The Government . . . . In 1954 Eisenhower signed a bill that added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps that took the sting out of knowing that the rest of the pledge was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist. Whatever, Ike was pleased with the legislation, saying, “from this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this re-dedication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning …” Given that most young students, as Paul Simon inferred in “My Little Town,” “pledged allegiance to the wall,” Ike’s platitudes over this rote exercise truly missed the mark. Whether pledging to the flag or the wall, the kids were more interested in checking out each other, for whatever reason, than mouthing a patriotic ode.
Two years later Eisenhower approved a Joint Resolution from the 84th Congress, making “In God We Trust” the nation’s motto. In 1957 the national motto began appearing on all U.S. currency. Though not a fundamentalist, Ike as president was doing all he thought possible to inspire a national spiritual renewal. In his first year as president, he initiated the National Prayer Breakfast. For his cabinet meetings, he took the suggestion of his Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, a Mormon, that each meeting begin with a silent prayer. That pleased the moral and spiritual watchdogs of the nation who worried about too much Elvis or too much James Dean or too much Marlon Brando. Still the president was only human. Anxious to get through one cabinet meeting, Ike started with the business at hand. Toward the end of the meeting, an aide passed him a note: something was overlooked. Ike blurted out, “Goddammit, we’ve forgotten the silent prayer.”
Billy Graham overlooked such blunders because he believed Ike’s leadership made the nation more willing to hear the Gospel. Yet from time to time Graham remembered that as he went into all the world and preached that Gospel, it was important the message of Christ not be bundled with politics. For at least three decades, it was something he’d remind himself of quite often, just as he did after publicly criticizing Truman’s State Department. And before he wrote that effusive letter to Ike in 1951, he told an Eisenhower supporter that he “was not interested in being sidetracked by politics.” But that didn’t stop Billy from reporting on a survey in which 77% of churchmen and religious editors favored Ike. In the press release that accompanied the survey there was the following disclaimer, “Mr. Graham is not taking sides in the political campaign. He is remaining neutral.” When Eisenhower defeated Democratic Party nominee Adlai Stevenson to gain the presidency, Billy again forgot neutrality and wrote a letter to Time-Life publisher Henry Luce, thanking him for “backing Ike…. I believe a new day is dawning.”
The nation got through that “new day” and the ensuing years of the Eisenhower administration with little fear of the government becoming a theocracy. However, that doesn’t mean the U.S. avoided the usual right-wing foolishness. There were CIA-directed coups in Iran and Guatemala. There was also Ike failing to use his political capital in support of the nation’s budding civil rights movement. He couldn’t be bothered to lift his voice to use the words “race,” “racial,” or “Negro” in his acceptance address after he was nominated by the Republicans for a second term. His speechwriter, Arthur Larson, would suggest something bold but be sent back to coin such lame sentences extolling “quietly effective actions conceived in understanding and good will for all.” Eisenhower was most interested in placating the forces of bigotry just one year after the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi. Larson, disgusted with Eisenhower’s specific deference to Southerners, recalled that “President Eisenhower, during his presidential tenure, was neither emotionally nor intellectually in favor of combating segregation in general.”
At such moments it paid to have good friends like Billy Graham, who didn’t want to be “sidetracked by politics.” He advised Ike not to move too fast in endorsing civil rights. “Again I would caution you about getting involved in this particular problem,” Graham intoned, and intoned some more, “immediately after the election you can take whatever steps you feel are wise and right. In the meantime, it might be well to let the Democratic Party bear the brunt of the debate.”
According to the tragically cautious, over nine decades after the Emancipation Proclamation was still too soon for blacks in America to gain the full rights of citizenship. Graham’s vacillating on whether to once-and-for-all end segregated seating at his crusades in the ’50s signaled the direction Graham’s conservative followers in the Southern Baptist Church and Republican Party would follow into the 21st century. There would be integrated seating in Graham’s Chattanooga crusade but not at the one in Dallas. Poor Billy. He could inveigh against sexual lusts and materialism all day but taking an uncompromising position against hate was too difficult.
God Knows There’s A Purpose . . . . Graham’s followers, especially those who donated to his ministries, took great pride knowing their man had the ear of the president, not only in the Oval Office, but also on the golf course. It’s where powerful men bond. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Graham wrote of fun and fellowship on the links with President Eisenhower and his VP, Richard Nixon. Graham first met Nixon in the Senate Dining Room in 1952. Nixon was then the junior senator from California, just two years earlier winning his senate seat through dubious (some would say cheating) ways, similar to how he was elected to California’s 12th congressional seat in 1946.
In his book, Billy Graham, A Parable of American Righteousness, Marshall Frady wrote that Graham and Nixon “struck an immediate mutual affinity… they hummed to profoundly common frequencies.” Of course Graham saw Nixon as a future president — surely he’d be swept into the Oval Office after serving two terms as vice president. A year before the 1960 election between Nixon and John F. Kennedy (JFK), Graham said, “Mr. Nixon is probably the best-trained man for President in American history, and he is certainly every inch a Christian gentleman.”
But Graham wasn’t content in the ’60 campaign to promote Nixon’s political and spiritual bona fides, he also placed himself on the awkward side of the religious issue. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, which was reason enough for dogmatic Protestants to oppose him. It wasn’t the hotline to Moscow that worried them, it was the hotline to the Vatican. Those who knew Kennedy best thought it silly, given that JFK wasn’t a devout Catholic. Yet in what all knew would be a close election, a candidate leaves nothing to chance, so Kennedy called on Graham and other clerics to affirm they would not make religion an issue as the election drew near. Graham declined the request, resorting to his fallback position, claiming, “I shouldn’t become involved in partisan politics.” He stood by that claim for a few more weeks until he wrote an article for Life extolling Nixon’s character. Graham’s wife and friends took him to task for abandoning the pledge. Prayers went up for God to persuade publisher Henry Luce to stop the presses. Not only did God hear about Graham’s story; so did JFK, who was irked at Luce’s favoritism. Reaffirming Graham’s belief in miracles, Luce decided he shouldn’t run the piece after all, pulling it at the last minute. With the “hallelujahs” still echoing, however, Billy lifted up a prayer at a South Carolina Nixon rally. In his memoir, Billy surmised people would take it as an implied endorsement for Nixon. He just couldn’t help himself; the Graham-Nixon bromance was too strong.
After the election, won by Kennedy in a photo-finish that compelled reasonable people to suspect voter fraud, Graham not so reasonably, jumped into the fray, talking about recounts in Illinois and New Mexico. That didn’t stop him, however, from accepting Kennedy’s invitation to play golf in Palm Beach, Florida. After all, this was another chance to witness on the links. The two covered some theological ground. Kennedy asked Graham about the Second Coming of Christ, saying that his church didn’t preach it. “I’d liked to know what you think,” the President-Elect said. So Billy gave him a rundown on the Christian essentials.
Graham didn’t visit Kennedy as frequently as he did Eisenhower, or as often as he would call on Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, but the two enjoyed each other’s company. In Just As I Am, Graham offered a rather poignant story of their last visit together in February ’63:
The last time I was with Kennedy was at the 1963 National Prayer Breakfast. I had the flu.
“Mr. President, I don’t want to give you this bug that I’ve got, so I’m not going to talk right at your face.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said. “I talk to a lot of people all day long who have got all kinds of bugs.”
After I gave my short talk and he gave his, we walked out of the hotel, to his car together, as was always our custom. At the curb, he turned to me.
“Billy, could you ride back to the White House with me? I’d like to see you for a minute.”
“Mr. President, I’ve got a fever,” I protested. “Not only am I weak, but I don’t want to give you this thing. Couldn’t we wait and talk some other time?”
It was a cold, snowy day, and I was freezing as I stood there without any overcoat.
“Of course,” he said graciously.
His hesitation at the car door, and his request, haunt me still. What was on his mind? Should I have gone with him? It was an irrecoverable moment.
Perhaps Kennedy wanted to discuss spiritual matters again, convey some regrets about his personal life or talk through the American presence in Vietnam. It was a situation then on its way to becoming a problem, then a crisis with its final destination being a tragedy. Not even nine months would pass before it became Lyndon Johnson’s situation. It became a problem quicker than Kennedy likely envisioned, with Johnson only making things worse.
You Follow, Find Yourself At War . . . . So there’s Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) on the cover of the January 1, 1965 issue of Time magazine, one of the items placed near Bob Dylan on the cover of his Bringing It All Back Home album, released three months after Time named LBJ its 1964 “Man of the Year.” It’s a stern look on Johnson’s face that Peter Hurd and Henriette Wyeth painted for the cover portrait. The face of the man who knows he’s made a bad choice and men will die because of it. Given the history that’s played out, he looks more sinister than Mr. Potter, who gets to run the Bedford Falls draft board in It’s A Wonderful Life. Potter seems to delight in sending young men to war. That kind of power was no joy for Johnson, but he continued with his choice, leaving his nation’s young men to live — and die — with it.
In 1964 there were 23,300 American soldiers in Vietnam. With Johnson escalating the war, by 1968 the number of American soldiers in Vietnam grew to over half a million. By then a full-time crisis, the war filled Johnson with greater sorrow as he dug harder and deeper. He preferred to focus on his “Great Society” programs, picking up where Franklin Roosevelt left off with his “New Deal.” He told his biographer Doris Kearns how it felt at the fork in the road:
“If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war … I would lose everything at home …. all my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless …. to provide education and medical care ….”
But to pull out of Vietnam, he felt would invite adversaries in Moscow and Peking to “exploit our weakness.” “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved — the Great Society, ” Johnson lamented. Going against his heart and perhaps his gut, LBJ continued down a dead end street. And there to listen, advise and offer companionship was Billy Graham, pastor to the presidents.
In their book, The Preacher and The Presidents, Billy Graham in the White House, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy report on an interview with Ted Sorenson, a top aide for President Kennedy who stayed on briefly for Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination. Sorenson wasn’t the least bit star-struck by Graham and viewed the Johnson-Graham relationship as deceptive. “Graham was using Johnson as much as Johnson was using Graham,” Sorenson said in 2006, concluding that “Graham wanted to be Mr. Religion in this country and show how important and powerful he was.”
Bill Moyers, who served as Johnson’s press secretary, told Marshall Frady that “Billy Graham represented a basic kind of patriotism in this country — an unquestioning obeying patriotism, a loyalty to the authority of the president.” Frady went on to say that Graham “was enveloped by Johnson.” Moyers recalled how Johnson would rivet Billy when he shared state secrets with him, especially about the war — he’d say, “Here’s how I chose those bombing targets, Billy.” The preacher’s eyes would light up; for Graham, it was the ultimate field trip.
In his 1971 song, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” John Prine observes that “Jesus don’t like killing no matter what’s the reason for.” Hardly a radical thought, in fact we might expect ministers of the Gospel to agree with Prine. If we accept that ministers are pro-life in the abortion debate, we should also expect them to be “pro-life” on the issue of capital punishment and especially when it comes to waging war, but that isn’t always the case. Graham understood his constituency and he could not add to it if he abandoned his “unquestioning obeying patriotism.”
There in the mid ’60s, at the peak of his popularity, was the world’s most acclaimed minister of the Gospel providing Lyndon Johnson company and consolation as he explained his mastery of war.
Yet living with that “bitch of a war” instead of going all in with the lady he called “The Great Society” left Johnson a broken man. He decided not to run for a second full term in the 1968 presidential election. On March 31 of that year he shared his decision with the American people, leaving Vietnam to either Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey or the man Billy Graham called “the best-trained man for President in American history,” Richard Nixon.
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You . . . . LBJ made it clear to Billy he was welcome to stay overnight at the White House whenever he came to Washington. It wasn’t just a friendly invitation, it was more like an order, and Billy, already star-struck by the power and glory of the presidency, was happy to make himself at home. In fact, he had become the American taxpayers’ guest, spending the night at the White House on the last day of Johnson’s presidency and the next night, the first day of Richard Nixon’s administration. That day, January 20, 1969, was when Graham’s role went beyond that of “Pastor to the Presidents.” He became a symbol of Nixon’s presidency. Graham and Nixon joined at the hip.
In his crusades, newspaper columns, books, radio and TV appearances, Billy was the Christian soldier, proclaiming the peace that belief in Jesus Christ can bring. But he also became the Nixon Administration’s soldier, marching as to war. And the Nixon administration was at war — on many fronts. Richard Nixon inherited Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War with 536,000 American soldiers in harm’s way. In five years Johnson bolstered troops by more than half-a-million from the 16,000 JFK left him with. Nixon plotted and planned concepts such as Vietnamization and “peace with honor,” its definition seeming to change daily. Nixon wanted to move on to other projects, like Johnson would have chosen. No doubt he hated the war just as George Bailey hated the “Building and Loan” in It’s A Wonderful Life. But ending the war with its attendant “peace with honor” and making war with those who opposed the war consumed Nixon. Eventually it brought him down, nearly taking the Reverend Graham down with him. Billy had already stepped along the edges with Eisenhower and Johnson, talking policy when his followers thought he was just offering spiritual guidance to the presidents. In the Nixon administration, he seemed a member of the president’s “kitchen cabinet,” with more than prayers and scripture in his portfolio. His unofficial role was far more involved than what he thought he could do for Truman two decades earlier.
Nixon instructed his Chief of Staff H. R. Halderman to keep Graham close by, calling him up every two weeks, peppering him with questions on policy. The president was interested in what Graham thought because that reflected what the millions who attended Graham’s crusades thought. Not only would he learn how something would play in Peoria but also how it would go over in Knoxville, Dallas, Charlotte, Fort Wayne and other middle-American burgs. Halderman would hit Graham like the man from the Gallup Poll. What did Graham think of Kissinger’s trip to China? The administration’s recent attacks on the media? The president’s policy on busing? And how much of a threat was George Wallace, running for president this time as a Democrat? President Nixon is not only my dear friend, Graham thought, it’s important that he knows what I think. That large sucking sound was Graham being pulled into the Nixon vortex.
Words From A Reprobate Mind . . . . In a ’60s sermon, Graham declared those who made it to Heaven would cruise the universe, doing God’s work across the solar system. There’d be no goldbricking in the afterlife, no taking the first thousand years off to get used to the place. After all, Billy Graham had certainly gotten used to the corridors of power on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
While conducting 13 crusades from Auckland to Cleveland during Nixon’s first term, he also found time to be at the president’s beck and call. It was dirty work, but he decided he could serve Richard Nixon and also serve the Lord. At the same time he could appease the legalistic cranks who attended his crusades, watched him on TV, and most importantly, kept sending his organization money. They were the same people Nixon described as the “Silent Majority” who supported his policy on the war in Vietnam. They held those protesting the war in contempt: If four Kent State students are murdered while simply exercising their First Amendment rights, then so be it. All this freedom-of-speech stuff was just too convoluted for them to get their arms around. Besides, their man was elected to the presidency and if he wanted to make like a king, it was hardly as messy and confounding as Constitutional freedoms.
Graham’s followers in places like Knoxville, Charlotte and Birmingham vilified the relatively few protestors of the Vietnam war who hurled stones at police and National Guard officers but hardly questioned their nation’s relentless bombing of the Vietnam’s countryside or the My Lai massacre. While acknowledging the tragedy of the massacre, Graham, deep in his own-private-Idaho, declared that “We have all had our My Lais in some way or another. . . with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act, or a selfish deed.” A selfish deed? Even Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright hardly measures to the devastation of that Vietnamese village, but tens of thousands hanging on his every alibi swallowed it whole. Billy Graham understood his audience. He knew what they found appalling. Protests and civil disobedience struck them as immoral while the deaths of innocents were simply unfortunate happenstances of war.
Graham knew that a large segment of his followers — millions of white American churchgoers– believed in a hard-nosed kind of law and order. As far back as 1960 Graham toed that line when he publicly admonished “some extreme Negro leaders” for “going too far” with their sit-ins and marches. He was then speaking of the sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina that began after four black university students were refused service. Even President Eisenhower, painfully slow in supporting the civil rights movement, said he was “deeply sympathetic with the effort of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that are guaranteed by the Constitution.” For Graham, citizens being tidy and polite with their demands was more important than any guarantee of rights and equality. As protests and resistance to the Vietnam War increased, those running the war reached for their law-and-order playbooks and the assistance of Billy Graham.
Graham was rolling. His longtime friend, Richard Nixon, is president and Graham gets to conduct church services in the White House. In years before, presidents would either go to church or sleep in on Sundays, but not Nixon. Billy Graham would bring God to Nixon’s house, and when the service was over, Graham could mix with the guests while Nixon and his aides could get on with doing the devil’s work. Talk of loving one’s enemies would stay in the church services. On the White House tapes that Nixon thought would always be his alone, Graham joins a dazzling array of Nixon aides, many who would go to prison for their crimes in the Watergate scandal. In a 1972 recording, Nixon is riffing on the number of Jews in the American media — people running the American media. Nixon and Graham noted their Jewish friends were with them in their support of Israel but otherwise, Jews were leading the nation to perdition. Nixon really gets Graham worked up.
The number of Jews working as editors and reporters at the nation’s leading media forum bothered Nixon. Hadn’t the Jewish quota been exceeded? It’s all on the tape from recordings made on February 1, 1972. Graham and Nixon have just returned from the National Prayer Breakfast.
Nixon: It’s a very interesting thing. You really can’t talk about it publicly. Do you know Paul Keyes?
Nixon: He was saying on his show, he says it’s true of every show in Hollywood. Eleven out of the twelve writers are Jewish.
Graham: That’s right.
Nixon: Now Life is totally dominated by the Jews. Newsweek is totally, is owned by Jews and dominated by them, their editorials. The New York Times, The Washington Post, are totally Jewish.
(H.R. Halderman walks in and mutters something that’s unclear and Nixon picks back up.)
Nixon: The ownership of The Los Angeles Times is now totally Jewish. Poor Otis Chandler, who sits on the top of the heap. The other thing, though, is that all three networks, except for, they have front men — they have Howard K. Smith, or Brinkley, or a Cronkite may not be of that persuasion — but the writers, though, ninety-five percent are Jewish. Now, what does this mean? Does this mean that all the Jews are bad? No. It does mean that most Jews are left-wing, particularly the younger ones like that.
(H.R. Halderman mutters something again.)
Nixon: They’re way out. They’re radical. They’re for peace at any price, except where Israel is concerned. The only way (unclear) that I have on this, and that is the best Jews, actually, are the Israeli Jews.
Graham: That’s right.
Nixon: Because Israel, the reason (Prime Minister of Israel) Mrs. (Golda) Meir supports me, which she does, is for a very fundamental reason. They know the Democratic candidates will be catering to the domestic Jewish vote, but she supports me. Because she knows the greatest danger to Israel is Russia. And she knows that in the (1970) crisis involving Jordan that I faced the Russians down for ’em. She knows that I am the only one that will do it. She knows that any Democrat will cave to the Communists, to the Russians. See, that’s the point. She’s tough. We talked about this. Rabin is the same way.
Graham: Oh yeah.
Nixon: Rabin, of course, is a Russian Jew, and boy does he know them. Now, however, in this country, we must be under no illusions. You’re aware of the fact that in the media, we confront almost a solid block of people (unclear). And it doesn’t have anything to do with anti-Semitism. It happens, though, insofar as the media is concerned, the power of the media —
Graham: They’ve got it!
Nixon: They’ve got it right by —
Graham: And they’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff, and putting out everything.
Nixon: I don’t know why they do.
(A gap in the tape occurs at this point, but picks up again as Graham becomes more agitated over Jews in the media.)
Graham: But this stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going to go down the drain!
Nixon: Do you believe that?
Graham: Yes, sir.
Nixon: Boy! I can never say it though, but I believe —
Graham: But if you’ve been elected a second time, you might be able to do something.
In The Preacher And The Presidents, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy write that “when the tape of the meeting went public thirty years later it did more to damage Graham’s reputation than any incident, any comment, any action of his nearly sixty years in public life.” In 2002, Graham was remorseful and ashamed, saying he’d get down on his knees to his Jewish friends, begging forgiveness. He claimed to have little memory of the banter with Nixon, but it should have been clear to him by then that his relationship with the president wasn’t so much about the ministry or his witness — it was about access to the powerful, something that motivated him for decades.
Nixon didn’t need Billy’s friendship or thoughts on what Jesus would do. What he wanted most was to be seen with Graham. That always helped with the approval ratings. As Graham looked back at his friendship with Nixon, he could remember very few times in which Nixon conveyed a knowledge of the scriptures or the firmness of his faith.
In the early hours of June 17, 1972 five men were arrested at the Watergate Hotel for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee. All five burglars were being paid by the Nixon reelection campaign. For weeks and months to most of the country, it seemed just an inside-the-beltway story, so Nixon gave thought to another effort that would seal a victory over Democratic nominee George McGovern in November. He knew Billy Graham would help.
Although George Wallace lies partially paralyzed in a Maryland hospital bed from an assassination attempt the previous month, Nixon is concerned about the spoiler role Wallace could play in the campaign. He’s worried that Wallace will commence an independent campaign for the presidency, which could put George McGovern in the White House. Nixon asks Graham to call Wallace, check on his health and inquire about any campaign plans. Graham does so and tells the country’s leading segregationist that an independent campaign would take far more votes from Nixon than McGovern. Wallace has no interest in helping McGovern and assures Graham he has no intention on reviving his campaign that year. Graham tells the White House he’s 99% sure Wallace won’t launch an independent campaign. Once again, the evangelist who claims no involvement in partisan politics completes another political errand.
Graham biographers Gibbs and Duffy concede Nixon would’ve won even if his side had not cheated. Well, yes. He got eighteen million more votes than McGovern, who charged that Nixon was running “the most corrupt administration in history.” But it hardly mattered what McGovern said; American involvement in Vietnam was winding down, the military draft was going away, the economy was sound and when pressed, Nixon could spend like a Democrat on domestic programs. As Graham hoped, Nixon got his second term so he “might be able to do something.” Actually what he did in his truncated second term was contrive ways to stay in office and stay out of jail. The Watergate break-in went way beyond what Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler called a third-rate burglary. Top Nixon aides, including H. R. Halderman and John D. Ehrlichman, went to prison for their role in the cover-up of the burglary. Nixon resigned from the presidency 20 months into his second term, avoiding impeachment, and then avoiding jail when President Gerald Ford granted a full and unconditional pardon “for all offenses he, Richard Nixon has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.”
Billy Graham did not spend very much time at the White House in the months leading up to Nixon’s resignation. It wasn’t as if Nixon wished to discuss the Nicene Creed with Graham, and no doubt Nixon was too embarrassed to host his old friend since he was the cause of the “long national nightmare.” Of course Graham stayed abreast of the news and it shook him. The Watergate break-in. The ongoing cover-up of said break-in. Then news of another break-in: that of Dan Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The Huston Plan. There was also the resignation of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, that came some ten months before Nixon left office. Agnew was getting kickbacks on construction jobs that went back to his time as governor of Maryland. Agnew’s co-conspirators even delivered the money to the White House. For Graham, this was a whole lot of sin to get worked up about. However what shocked Billy most was Nixon’s penchant for profanity as revealed in the transcriptions of the Oval Office tapes. At times Nixon had seemed so prim, not the type to go scatological. And though Nixon didn’t hurl the obscenities artfully like a character in a Scorsese film, this side of the president made Graham physically ill. As time went along, he observed that very few of their conversations regarded spiritual matters. Much later, perhaps he realized he had ventured over to the dark side and quickly got lost in it, offering Nixon moral support for his conduct of the war in Vietnam and taking part in a rant about Jews in Hollywood. All this went against what Billy knew was proper in his service to Jesus. Publicly serving Richard Nixon in that dark era wasn’t the Lord’s work.
Five years and two weeks would pass between Nixon’s resignation and the release of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming album. Over the next few months the airwaves were filled with the declaration that “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” The words came across on the country’s rock stations; not on the religious stations on the far right of the AM dial. But did Billy Graham ever hear Dylan’s big hit and reflect the choice proffered? He pitched a variation of that on a daily basis.
Graham made his own choices too. The disappointment he felt in Nixon would not keep him from visiting the next 7 presidents at the White House. Embarrassment and ruin did not hover in those visits, but memories, not all of them good, must have. Some of those memories would be like bad dreams to most of us. “When You Gonna Wake Up” was one of the more impassioned pulpit-pounding songs from Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. The admonishment to wake up apparently never occurred to Billy Graham in his visits to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His image and ministry suffered for it.
Harry Truman and Jack Benny, 1959, public domain photo,Truman Library, National Archives and Records Administration
President Eisenhower and President-Elect Kennedy Meet at the White House, December 1960. public domain
Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson meet on July 26, 1968. Photo by Yoschi Okomoto, http://lbjlibrary.org/collections/photo-archive/photolab-detail.html?id=1377
Photo of Billy Graham and Richard Nixon at a Billy Graham Crusade, public domain.White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), 1/20/1969 - 8/9/1974 of Billy Graham and Richard Nixon at a Billy Graham Crusade, public domain
Photo of Bob Dylan and The Band in Chicago, 1974, by Jim Summaria [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.