It’s not front-page news that Billy Graham has enjoyed varying degrees of access to every president since Harry Truman. The latest issue of Time, which publishes excerpts from the new book The Preacher and the Presidents by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, reports some interesting new details:
• President Eisenhower asked Graham how people could be sure they were going to Heaven.
• President Kennedy wanted to discuss how the world would end.
• President Johnson once had Graham fly with him because he was afraid his jet might crash in horrible weather. On equally amusing notes, “Johnson summoned Graham to Washington to talk, pray and go skinny-dipping in the White House pool. Though L.B.J. was a shrewd political operator, their relationship was largely pastoral. Graham led the President to Jesus while sitting in Johnson’s famous white convertible on his ranch in Texas.”
• Richard Nixon “collapsed in Graham’s arms at his mother’s funeral in 1967.”
• There was a greater distance between Graham and President Carter, although Carter had once helped organize a Graham crusade back in Georgia.
The cover story spends too little space exploring whether Graham’s being so close to power may have compromised his ministry as an evangelist. (I’ll leave aside the concerns felt by the more rigid believers in church-state separation.)
In contrast, ABC’s 20/20 seemed obsessed with such questions. While wearing his bookish reading glasses, host Charlie Gibson scrunched his face to ask whether the presidents exploited Graham or he exploited them. Gibson also asked a more important question, at least to believers: Did Graham fail to speak truth to power? (Graham never criticized a president’s actions in public, and there was no indication in Time or on 20/20 that he offered constructive criticism in private.)
Historian Randall Balmer answered one of Gibson’s questions by speculating that Graham wanted to be liked by people in power. To drive the point home, 20/20 showed a clip of President Clinton applauding, in ominous slow motion, at Graham’s final crusade appearance in Queens in 2005. Balmer also offered his opinion that religion functions best when speaking from the margins, rather than from the center of power — a faintly amusing point when made by a longtime professor of Columbia University who is now also an Episcopal priest.
The 20/20 report flubbed two significant details; It claimed that Nixon adviser Charles Colson “found God in prison” (he became a Christian before being sentenced to jail); and it described Graham as facing criticism because of his favorable remarks about the Clintons. The report showed only Graham’s remark that Clinton would be a powerful evangelist (which is almost indisputable, at least in terms of charisma), but omitted his remark that Hillary Clinton could run the country while Clinton was on the sawdust trail (which some people took as an endorsement and Graham’s son Franklin quickly said was only a joke).
Neither Time’s report nor 20/20 explores Graham’s complicated relationship with power in satisfactory detail. What is clear — from Gibson’s group interview with all the living ex-presidents, with President Bush and with Hillary Clinton — is that all the presidential families felt grateful for Graham’s presence and his counsel. Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith noted, toward the end of 20/20, that no other evangelist is likely to enjoy the same White House access that Graham enjoyed for decades — and added that this may be for the better.
In that respect, I think Balmer’s point is valid: The gospel is better served when religious leaders keep a healthy distance from political power. The challenge for future presidents will be to find spiritual guidance and solace from someone else — preferably from ministers who have no national profile, and do not seek one.