Often regarded as ‘America’s pastor’, Rev. Billy Graham was vastly influential in the United States and around the world as a minister and evangelist. Ever a simple and humble man, he was close friends with nearly every US president since Truman.
Born in 1918, he was alive from the presidency of Woodrow Wilson to that of Donald Trump. Graham treated each president with transparency and grace. His goal was ‘to bring out the best in people, even presidents, because that tended to be all that he saw in them. Whatever faults they had, he would not be the one sitting in judgment’ (Time, 21 Feb. 2018). Over the course of befriending nearly 12 presidents, his interactions with them had both positive and negative aspects.
In July 1950, Billy Graham met President Harry S. Truman. The Korean War had just started and Graham entered the White House as the president’s guest. They met for only 15 minutes, after which Graham placed his arm around the president and asked if he could pray. Later, Graham went outside and recounted his visit to the press, including many details of their conversation.
President Truman was indignant, angry that Graham would share details of their private conversation. Many years after, Graham sought Truman’s forgiveness in the matter. He recalled, ‘It was a terrible mistake on my part’.
Graham wrote later, adding that ‘national coverage of our visit was definitely not to our advantage. The president was offended that I had quoted him without authorisation … I knew that you didn’t quote famous people’ (St Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 Feb. 2018).
But Billy Graham became a close friend and mentor of the next president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. According to a poll by The Washington Post, during this era ‘church membership rose from 49 per cent in 1940 to 69 per cent in 1960’ (28 Feb. 2018). Something like a religious awakening was sweeping across America. Everywhere, there was an aura of religious fervour.
During this time, which was also in the midst of the Cold War, a humble Mennonite general from Kansas became the 34th president of the United States. It was during Ike’s term that the motto ‘In God we trust’ and the National Prayer Breakfast became American icons. Eisenhower soon made fast friends with Graham.
Although their friendship had begun earlier in 1952, Eisenhower confided in Graham during his presidency and invited Graham to preach on 6 March 1955. Graham’s counsel was most sought by Eisenhower at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Eisenhower asked Graham whether Southern churches might help with racial reconciliation. Graham didn’t give a definite answer, but said he would talk to church leaders. Though he had been supportive of efforts to bring racial reconciliation, he urged Eisenhower to stay ‘out of this bitter racial situation that is developing’ (Washington Post, Ibid.). Both men thought the African American advocates of civil rights wanted to move things too quickly, and that delay would lead to heart change — a better way forward.
He remained friends with Eisenhower after his presidency and was present at Ike’s deathbed, speaking the truth of the gospel and giving him comfort in his last hours.
Kennedy and LBJ
Graham, a long-standing Democrat, was first invited to meet with John F. Kennedy during the president’s visit to Palm Beach, Florida, and played a round of golf with him. Graham was not as close to Kennedy due to his Catholicism, though their conversations helped allay some differences between American Catholics and Protestants.
Graham became very close to President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was with Johnson shortly after Kennedy’s assassination and prayed with him before he took the oath of office. From 1963, Graham would visit the White House at the president’s behest to give spiritual counsel. He would pray at Johnson’s bedside and stay at the White House during his visits.
He even discussed political matters with him. As reported in the Charlotte Observer, the president and Graham were looking at a list of potential running mates, at dinner in the White House in 1964. ‘At that, Ruth Graham kicked her husband under the table, an assault the president noticed and asked about. “Billy ought to limit his advice to you to religious and spiritual matters”, she said. They dropped the topic.
‘Until “Lady Bird” Johnson and Ruth left the room, that is. Then the president asked again. “Hubert Humphrey”, Graham replied. That November, the Democratic Johnson-Humphrey ticket won by a landslide’ (Charlotte Observer, 21 Feb. 2018).
While their friendship was observed by all, there were benefits that both acknowledged. Texas Monthly says: ‘If Billy Graham was the president’s friend, then millions of Americans would conclude that the president must be a good man, a decent man, a noble man, perhaps even a Christian man.
‘And if he possessed those qualities, then his causes — his war on poverty, his Civil Rights Act, his effort to preserve freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia — must also be good, decent, noble, perhaps even Christian, and therefore precisely the causes Christian folk ought to support. For his part, Graham understood that he served to legitimate Johnson to an evangelical constituency, particularly in the South and Southwest’ (Texas Monthly, ‘Billy and Lyndon’).
As Johnson neared the end of his term, he worried who would carry on his ideals regarding the Vietnam War. Billy Graham was drawn into the political manoeuvering when persuaded to carry a message from Richard Nixon to Johnson. Nixon promised, via Billy Graham, that should Johnson win the Vietnam War, Nixon would give Johnson ‘a major share of the credit’ for a settlement and would ‘do everything to make you … a place in history’ (Politico, 21 Feb. 2018).
When Richard Nixon became the next president of the United States, he moved rapidly to secure the friendship and popular appeal that Graham possessed. Both were united by their zeal to end Communism, and Nixon saw Graham as a means of securing voting districts and electoral support. Trouble seemed sure to come of this alliance, and it began in 1972, when President Nixon was perceived to have anti-Semitic views.
Graham didn’t rebuff the president, but said, ‘A lot of Jews are great friends of mine … They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they really 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’. Nixon replied, ‘You must not let them know’ (Quoted in Politico, Ibid.). It is worth noting that Graham repented of this comment later in life.
By the time of the Watergate debacle, Billy Graham was fast friends with Nixon and a prominent, if unofficial, advisor to the president. However, Graham was dumbfounded by Watergate. A Washington Post article describes that when Graham read the recorded exchanges between Nixon and his operatives, ‘he became physically, retchingly sick — a nausea that clung in his vitals through the rest of that afternoon’ (21 Feb. 2018).
Afterward, Graham never condoned Nixon’s actions, but tended to excuse them, blaming his advisors and even his sleeping pills. At Nixon’s funeral he stated the president’s faith was unshakable and always growing. He continued: ‘For the person who has turned from sin and has received Christ as Lord and Saviour, death is not the end … For the believer, there’s hope beyond the grave’ (Ibid.).
After Nixon, Graham was never as close to, or so politically involved, with US presidents. As Newsweek said: ‘Graham befriended and even loved the presidents and their families — the Reagans, the Bushes, the Clintons — but he never again flew so close to the flame’ (5 March 2018).
He had known Reagan long before he became president and remained a close friend even as Reagan battled with Alzheimer’s. Reagan was said to have told his family to wait to pray until Billy Graham could arrive.
Graham continued to meet with presidents until his death. He defended Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky debacle and was later criticised for that. He was a friend to the Bush family, and President George W. Bush credited Graham with turning his personal life around (Citizen Times, 8 March 2018).
The time Graham spent with Presidents Obama and Trump were fleeting, but he met them on a few occasions. In all, he was a pastoral friend, mentor and confidant to twelve US presidents. But, at Nixon’s downfall, Graham learned the hard truths of political power and never again sought to be at its centre.
Over the years, Billy Graham visited and stayed with presidents at the White House, prayed with them, preached to them, and enjoyed recreation with them. He was often at their bedside and called upon to console the families of dying presidents, from Eisenhower onwards. George Bush Jr. was the first president whose inauguration he missed, due to hip surgery. Over 60 years, he loved, prayed for and encouraged them.
It must be acknowledged that there was, at times, a ‘babe-in-the-woods’ innocence and naivety in his relationship with political power, which tarnished his reputation during the 1960s and 1970s.
His desire to influence his country’s leadership and his nation for the cause of Jesus Christ and the gospel indeed caused him to fly too close to the flame and his ministry suffered as a result. But Rev. Billy Graham will be remembered as the pastor to US presidents, as well as the preacher to millions.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA