THE PREACHER AND THE PRESIDENTS: BILLY GRAHAM IN THE WHITE HOUSE
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Center Street, $26.99, 413 pages
REVIEWED BY PRISCILLA S. TAYLOR
Unique is not a word to be used lightly, but for six decades Billy Graham has truly had unique access to the White House, and for the most part he has not abused the privilege. Just how the handsome, initially flamboyant, charismatic, persuasive but often naive evangelist came to know and counsel every president since Truman while preaching the gospel to millions of people around the world is the fascinating subject of this book by two Time magazine journalists.
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy begin “The Preacher and the Presidents” with the basis of Billy Graham’s confident ministry, his decision as a young preacher in 1949 to accept the Bible as God’s word “by faith.” “Graham’s universe was drawn by hand in black and white. For people wrestling with all kinds of new uncertainty in the postwar shadows, his conviction and the simplicity of his message were bracing and new.” Mr. Graham and his message caught the eye of Henry Luce, who investigated, found him genuine and became Mr. Graham’s chief publicist.
Mr. Graham soon managed an appointment with President Truman — the one president who never succumbed to Mr. Graham’s charm. When the evangelist asked Truman about his religious background, Truman said, “I try to live by the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule,” to which Mr. Graham replied, “I don’t think that’s enough!” To compound his impertinence, Mr. Graham innocently quoted the president to the press and knelt on the White House lawn for photographers when asked to reenact his prayer with Truman. Mr. Graham would never make such a mistake again.
Eisenhower was initially wary, but he was won over by Mr. Graham’s ministry to the ailing Mamie. Kennedy used Mr. Graham shamelessly, recruiting him for a very public golf game in Florida just before the 1960 election, but he had little time for the preacher thereafter. Lyndon Johnson “wanted a minister with him all the time” because, Mr. Graham said, “He was always a little bit scared of death.”
Nixon, who first impressed Mr. Graham in 1952, deceived the preacher for years. Mr. Graham told the authors, “I did misjudge him. [There] was a side to him that I never knew, yet I’d been with him so many times… . I almost felt as if a demon had come into the White House, and had entered his presidency.”
The authors comment, “Billy Graham could no more imagine that the president of the United States, his friend of twenty years, might be flatly lying to him than that cars could fly.” Toward the end, Nixon shut Mr. Graham out, and when Mr. Graham read the transcripts of Oval Office conversations in the privacy of his study, the authors say, he became “physically sick.”
Mr. Graham and Jimmy Carter never clicked, write the authors, because Mr. Carter “hardly needed a drop-in presidential pastor like Graham.” Mr. Graham was perhaps closest to Reagan, followed by the Bushes.
For all the presidents and their families, Mr. Graham always seemed to have at hand the appropriate scriptural reference — usually from the New Testament — to reassure each questioner, whether it be Gerald Ford on pardoning Nixon, Eisenhower on life after death, Johnson about sin and damnation, or Hillary Clinton on forgiveness.
The persistent charge against Mr. Graham, say the authors, was that he “somehow lacked the moral courage to speak truth to power… . Activists on the left wanted to know why Mr. Graham wasn’t marching with Martin Luther King Jr., why he wasn’t using his many golf games with Nixon to lobby for a bombing halt in Indochina. Later the armies of the right wanted to know why he did not throw his weight behind their crusades against abortion and gay marriage and liberal judges.”
The authors argue that Mr. Graham’s reluctance to challenge presidents privately or admonish them publicly “reflected his conviction that the truth that mattered most was the gospel truth; take up more earthly matters, he said, and he might lose his chance to witness. It was the basic nature of his faith that God had ordained these men to be president and his job was to pray with them and for them; the rest, he believed, would take care of itself.”
One who did speak up to keep Mr. Graham humble was his wife, Ruth. A missionary daughter, Ruth could match Mr. Graham verse for verse in biblical quotation and was not above kicking him under the table when he was tempted to dabble in politics. Theirs was a match made in heaven (they were Wheaton College sweethearts), and her common sense doubtless steered him away from many a pitfall.
What motivated Billy Graham to consort with presidents? He apparently had no social or legislative agenda and made no attempt to use his connections to get richer or more famous than he already was. The authors conclude, “When one measures what friendship with presidents could do for him, the agenda that emerges is the one he admitted to us the very first day we spoke to him: there were places he could not go without the power of the presidency behind him to open doors. That was the practical benefit of these friendships, and its impact was felt literally all around the world.”
Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.