Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition)
Friend, spiritual adviser to US presidents
HE was rebuffed, then embraced, by Harry Truman. Confided in – and deeply hurt by – Richard Nixon. A source of reassurance for George HW Bush on the eve of war. The spark that finally turned George W Bush toward sobriety.
The Rev Billy Graham, who died on Wednesday aged 99, was a fixture of the presidency to every man who has held the office back to the early years of the Cold War. He met all 12 of them, plus Donald Trump before he ran for office, and counselled most as they grappled with governing, politics and peace of mind.
Though most presidents have sought guidance from spiritual leaders, Graham’s role at the top echelons of American politics was unique, and there’s no obvious successor likely to fill his shoes.
The evangelical movement he helped turn into a political force is now most closely aligned with the Republican Party, including Trump, who has been publicly backed by numerous evangelical leaders.
For some of the presidents he advised, Graham offered more than just prayers, support and photo opportunities. Depending on the White House occupant and the era, he was a friend, negotiator and shrewd political adviser.
His first overtures to a president were rebuffed. His star rising, Graham pressed Truman, a Democrat, to attend his Washington crusade in 1952. But Truman wanted no part of Graham, whom he at first considered a publicity hound.
He had better luck with
Truman’s successor, Republican Dwight D Eisenhower. Graham urged Eisenhower to run for president, baptised him at the White House and counselled him about the afterlife.
His close friendship with Nixon began in the late 1950s, before the Republican landed in the White House. The match was glued by their disdain for communism, Graham’s belief that Nixon was a man of high moral character – and both men’s ambitions. Graham considered endorsing Nixon in the 1960 election against Democrat
John F Kennedy, when Kennedy’s Catholicism became a divisive issue.
“I think the true story with Graham was he was far more partisan that he’s ever let on in public or that’s ever come to light,” said Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College historian and author of God in the White House.
When Kennedy defeated Nixon, Graham agreed to play golf with the president-elect at the Kennedys’ Palm Beach, Florida, estate and drove around in Kennedy’s white Lincoln Continental.
But Graham and Kennedy were never close.
Graham’s relationship with Nixon was complex and ultimately painful. When the Watergate scandal broke, Graham said he did not recognise the man he knew as modest and moral. “I did not absolve him – but neither did I judge him,” Graham wrote in his memoirs.
When tapes from Nixon’s White House were released in 2002, Graham was heard telling the president that Jews “don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country”. He later apologised.
Graham took a lower political profile after Watergate, but he did not abandon politics. He urged President Gerald Ford to pardon Nixon and supported Jimmy Carter on the Salt disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union.
Graham also was criticised by some conservative evangelicals for praying at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, a supporter of abortion rights – and then criticised again for publicly forgiving Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and praising Hillary Rodham Clinton for forgiving her husband.
Graham had a close relationship with the Bush family – patriarch George HW Bush and his son, George W Bush.
Graham kept a lower profile later in life, but still kept in touch with presidents. He accepted tributes from a trio of them –Carter, Clinton and the elder Bush – at the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2010, President Barack Obama visited Graham at his home and in 2013 Trump and his wife, Melania, attended Graham’s 95th birthday party. – AP