- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2000


It is when he is several thousand feet up in the heavens, at the controls of his own cargo plane, that William Franklin Graham III feels most at ease. Up there, with God's handiwork laid out below him, the preacher's son, known by his middle name, can at last feel free of the burdens of expectation.

Franklin Graham was always a reluctant heir to his father's spiritual kingdom. When he was younger, he played the part of Prodigal Son, smoking, drinking whiskey and spitting defiance. But now he is poised to inherit the family business.

The old man, the world's best-known evangelical, is 81 and suffering from Parkinson's disease. So, increasingly, it is the son who must steer a flock of the faithful that numbers tens of millions and run an organization whose turnover is more than $100 million a year.

His kingdom is a very American mix of earthly soil and heavenly air. It is no accident, therefore, that the young Graham's university degree was in business, rather than theology.

"I run a business," he explains. "There is no stock, and I cannot sell it. It is God's business, a ministry, but we use business principles to run it because that is the best way to run any large organization."

Such worldly toil will one day, and perhaps one day soon, be irrelevant, he believes. "As a Christian, I do not believe that the world will cease. But it will be transformed," he says, with an earnest gleam in his eyes. "First, there will be more wars and more pestilence. The Bible told us that the world will renounce God and Jesus Christ. Well, it already has, as we have taken God out of our government and our society.

"Will apocalypse happen, will Jesus come back to take His world? Yes. Am I worried about it? No."

The Billy Graham Evangelical Association, in which his father is chief executive officer, operates "crusades," revival meetings and produces "Hour of Decision," America's most popular Christian radio show. After several years of boardroom deals and secret maneuverings, not all of them good-tempered, Franklin was appointed first vice president, and thus heir, three years ago.

Today, he is in New York on his dad's business, visiting publishers, and is wearing a black suit above a pair of well-worn, black, lizard-skin cowboy boots. He is recognized as he strides through Times Square: there is a strong stamp of Billy Graham in his face, although the eyes are less deep set and the chin a little less sculpted.

But he seems uncomfortable. He was once described as "a good man dressing to look bad," and, as if to prove it, he twists his neck against the confines of his suit. He seems possessed of no more than a glimmer of his father's charisma.

The role that he likes best takes him far away from cities as a sort of Indiana Jones of the evangelical world. For more than 20 years, he has run an action-packed charity, Samaritan's Purse, from Boone, in the hillbilly forests of North Carolina. He lives with his wife, with whom he has four grown-up children, near his headquarters, where he has his own airstrip and a staff of 200.

His is a Christian mission, not a relief agency, because Bibles go everywhere with the medicine, food and tents. In recent years, he has flown to Sudan and Kosovo, but his favorite mission takes him over the Alaskan tundra toward the Bering Straits carrying salt, fishing nets and the holy word to the Eskimo natives of frozen Siberia.

He wears jeans, cowboy boots and his favorite leather flying-jacket on these trips. "These," he says, looking down at his suit, "are just the clothes I go to work in. If Jesus Christ were with us on Earth today, I do believe he would be down in the bar, with the guys with tattoos, for these are the souls that must be found."

He loves the work and knows he does it well. "Dad," he likes to say, "was called to the world's stadiums, and I to its ditches."

Six antique rifles still hang on his office wall, and he keeps his Harley Davidson Wide Boy motorcycle parked outside. The message became obvious when he posed on the motorcycle for posters for a preaching tour: "Not His Father's Oldsmobile," read the caption.

"I resented paying for my father's name," he says. "All my life I have suffered for it."

He has, he says, always loved anything noisy, fast and given to issuing smoke and that includes guns. His youthful renegade spell included an episode in which he agreed to cut down a neighbor's tree and decided to do the job with a machine gun. The sound of sustained gunfire brought the police at full tilt. Mr. Graham explained, laconically, that he had not realized the job would take more than 750 rounds.

His worst offense was, probably, being expelled from a college in Texas, for staying out all night with a young woman. This was not as bad as it sounded: they were stuck in the wilderness when the airplane in which he had taken her for a ride broke down.

But he was drinking, too, and his habitual drink was whiskey, demon of priest and preacher. Mr. Graham never actually stopped going to church or declaring his faith rather, as his father pointed out mercilessly, he was trying to have it both ways: to be a Christian while "refusing to turn my face to the Lord."

The spiritual crisis came to a head when he was 22. On his birthday, he was summoned to the old man's office for a lecture. It was time, he was told, to choose between the Lord and the Devil.

In response, Mr. Graham asked for permission to deliver a donated Jeep to a charity in Jerusalem, and was given it. He boasted that he made the trip with the steering wheel in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other. He drove better, he explained to his mother, when he felt relaxed.

On arriving in Jerusalem, he lay one evening in his hotel room, smoking cigarettes and flicking through his Bible, when he came across 1 Corinthians 10:13. He read there that God is "faithful," and will test you, but not further than you can bear.

This proved to be the light on the road for Mr. Graham, who stubbed out his cigarette, rolled off the bed on to his knees and promised to devote his life to Christ. In the language of American evangelicals, he had been "born again."

"I had no idea what I would do then," he says, "but I knew I could leave that to Jesus." He was lucky or "blessed" because a family friend steered him toward Samaritan's Purse, the relief organization that Mr. Graham has turned into his personal mission. It offered just the halfway house he needed between God and the thrill of action.

"I try not to make it look as if I am getting high from the gunsmoke," he says.

It cannot be long now before Mr. Graham takes over the CEO's pulpit. He has already preached at the Washington National Cathedral to the heart of the American establishment, and has practiced the signature arts of calling to the souls of the masses at his own brand of crusade.

Franklin Graham plans to update the formula, but he knows the revival meetings will go on. The crowds will be smaller and Christian rock bands will replace the choirs of old to draw the young. But the "invitation" to devote the soul to Jesus, which is at the heart of the Billy Graham show, will remain the same.

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