Billy Graham was “the good Rasputin,” an independent religious figure who whispered into the ears of the powerful but always for the greater good rather than his own personal aggrandizement. His emergence coincided with the rapid rise of the Evangelical Movement in America and thus his political power.
In 1950, when he met with President Harry Truman, his first president, he was awkward and indiscreet but by the time he met with President Barrack Obama in 2010, presidents needed the picture with him far more than he needed one with them.
Politicians and Graham had a symbiotic relationship. Both had parts to play and both sides knew it.
In 1985, I prepared a memo for Vice President George H. W. Bush on how he could build a relationship with Evangelicals. Polling data available at the time showed Billy Graham as the least controversial Evangelical in public life. The vice president’s son, George W. Bush quizzed me at length about the memo and asked questions about another evangelical leader, Arthur Blessitt. That summer, Billy Graham was invited to the Bush compound at Kennebunkport, Maine and a friendship developed with the family, including father and son.
Ten years later, when then Texas governor, George W. Bush began to think seriously of running for president he began talking about a spiritual awakening that had been triggered by Billy Graham’s visit to Maine. As Bush remembered, they had walked the beach together and talked.
As the 2000 election neared, Richard Ostling a religious editor for the Associated Press called me to say that he had interviewed Dr. Graham and the evangelist had no idea of what Governor Bush was talking about. There was no beach in Kennebunkport, it was all rocks. And Graham remembered no such conversation.
I called Bush to warn him about the discrepancy. “Aw, he just probably forgot,” Bush said.
And afterward a apoplectic Arthur Blessitt began publishing a blog saying that he, Blessitt, had actually prayed with George W. Bush to be “born again.” “Where was this Billy Graham stuff coming from?”
By 2000, Governor George W. Bush was in a tight presidential race with Tennessee Senator Al Gore. By then Billy Graham and Bush had a clear understanding. I worked with a young staffer, Brian Jacobs, to help arrange a meeting between Bush and Graham in Jacksonville, Florida. The meeting took place the day before the election and both men appeared before the media. “I don’t endorse politicians,” Graham said, “But if I did it would be someone like this man right here.” How could he deny his own convert? The next day Bush won Florida by 537 votes and with it the White House.
Billy Graham was not perfect. When the television scandals hit he was the target of an IRS probe for illegally retained income and an ongoing Knight-Ridder investigation. When the Watergate tapes were released there he was apparently sympathetic to Richard Nixon’s anti Semitic ramblings.
Most people would be surprised to know that Graham was a hypochondriac who was constantly checking himself into Mayo Clinic. I received a call from him one day, from his hospital bed, just wanting to talk about politics and the White House. He sounded very much like he had only days to live. That was twenty five years ago.
Like all old men, Graham needed assurance that he was still wanted and needed and important. I called him one day and he appeared piqued. Reagan had always asked for his input for his speech before the National Prayer Breakfast. But we hadn’t bothered to call.
“I can assure you that the president wants your input,” I said confidently. “Why he would welcome anything you suggest.”
“Well, if you really think he would want it?”
“I can assure you Dr. Graham, he would be very grateful.”
“Well, I don’t want it to be a bother,” he added sheepishly.
“No, no, we want it, we want it.”
He promptly sent us suggested remarks that had the president recounting stories about “my good friend, Billy Graham.”
President George H. W. Bush did not miss a beat. He worked every line into his speech, lauding the evangelist and cementing their relationship.
Graham sat humbly, sometimes laughing as if he were hearing the stories for the first time, sometimes red with embarrassment at the praise and always surprised that the president would be so thoughtful to say such things..
Only two people in that ballroom knew that Billy Graham, himself, had written the words. They both got what they wanted.
One of the most telling moments I had with Dr. Billy Graham came in a private meeting with President G.H.W. Bush and four heads of state. Within a year, one was deposed, another in jail, another had died. Bush, himself, would not be re-elected. But Billy Graham endured. Many times I have thought back on that meeting. This was one of Graham’s greatest accomplishments, public figures come and go, somehow he survived them all.