Billy Graham confidential: New Nixon political memos released

Will it ever stop? Years after his death, President Richard Nixon’s secrets keep rising from the archives—as the latest batch did just last week.

illustration by V.C. Rogers

With the release of each classified memo and secretly recorded tape, more is learned about the inner workings of the Nixon White House—and of the people who advised a polarizing president at one of the most divisive times in modern political history.

People like Billy Graham, the Montreat-based, world-famous evangelist. Graham has offered his personal counsel to every president—Democrat and Republican—since Harry S. Truman, and has always maintained that his advices weren’t intended to sway the body politic. For example, at a 1980 press conference, he said, “People took for granted that I was for Eisenhower, they took for granted that I was for Lyndon Johnson, they took for granted that I was for Nixon, and they were right, but I didn’t endorse them openly in public.”

But behind closed doors, Graham was closer to some presidents than to others, and may have been closest of all to Nixon. Previous declassifications have revealed much back-and-forth between the preacher and the president. Now still more of their correspondence has gone public: On July 11—when the Nixon Presidential Library passed from control by private backers to the U.S. National Archives—the library released 78,000 pages of previously secret documents, along with 11-and-a-half hours of recordings.

A selection of the documents posted on the library’s Web site (view them at www.nixon.archives.gov/virtuallibrary/documents) includes five dealing directly with Graham. The papers—and at least one of the recordings—reveal back-room discussions about how Graham could best buoy Nixon’s bid for reelection in 1972, and suggest that Graham was a willing, if sometimes conflicted, player in the strategizing. Among the key disclosures:

The black vote: In a Dec. 30, 1969, memo, Nixon instructed White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to “follow up with Billy Graham in his work with Negro ministers across the country. He feels this is our best chance to make inroads into the Negro community. I am inclined to agree with him.”

(In his posthumously published diaries, Haldeman wrote on July 11, 1972, that Graham “feels we have a good chance on the blacks by splitting them and getting the religious blacks who are scared of the criminal elements and so on to come over to our side.”)

Evangelical politics: In a prescient letter to Nixon on Aug. 4, 1972, Graham predicted the rise of the Christian right as a potent political force.

He enclosed a Los Angeles Times article reporting on a study that indicated “the presidential candidate whose values seem closest to that of the Rev. Billy Graham stands the best chance to win in November.” Graham suggested that Nixon read the article because it “emphasize[s] what I have been pointing out to you in a number of conversations we have had that there is an emerging evangelical strength in the country that is going to have a strong bearing on social and political matters probably for a generation to come.”

Nixon vs. McGovern: In the same letter, Graham offered up some advice for Nixon’s reelection bid against Democrat George McGovern.

“I would seriously question the wisdom of your becoming personally involved in the campaign before early September,” Graham advised. “If the polls and the mood of the country continue as is you may be wise to do only a minimum of campaigning. I think Senator McGovern is perfectly capable of making further mistakes.”

A lost prayer: A mere three days after penning those campaign tips, Graham called the White House to discuss a potentially thorny matter—a request by a prominent Democrat for a public show of support from the evangelist.

On Aug. 7, 1972, Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander P. Butterfield wrote a “CONFIDENTIAL/PERSONAL” memo for the files titled “Telephone Call from Reverend Billy Graham.” In it, he recounted that Graham had called concerning a “strictly personal” matter: a request from his longtime friend Sargent Shriver to lead a prayer at Shriver’s acceptance speech as the Democrat’s vice-presidential candidate.

Graham, Butterfied noted, hoped to strike a “bipartisan posture”—“at least until about October,” when he could, if need be, “throw his support to the side of the President more effectively.” The minister “went on to say that he was truly in a quandary about what to do and that he very much wanted the President’s personal advice,” and that “he would abide by any decision made at this end of the line—that he would do nothing to hurt the President or to help McGovern.”

Butterfield took the question to Nixon. “The President listened carefully, then answered firmly, ‘He should not do it [give the prayer for Shriver],” the memo says. “‘You should call him back and tell him that it would be tantamount to his having attended the Democratic National Convention.’”

Butterfield then relayed Nixon’s answer in two phone calls to Graham, who, according to the memo, ultimately responded, “Fine. Then, that’s exactly what I will do.”

Nixon’s “morality issue”: One of the newly released tapes is of a phone call on Nov. 3, 1972—four days before the election—in which White House Special Counsel Chuck Colson gave Nixon a detailed status report on numerous campaign issues. “Billy Graham’s thing has moved very well—his statement supporting us, supporting you, on the integrity and on the morality issue,” Colson told the president. “He came through very well.”

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One thought on “Billy Graham confidential: New Nixon political memos released

  1. George Peery

    This is an absolutely brilliant piece of research and journalism. Bothwell and Elliston should be praised for their initiative in digging through just released tapes and documents of three decades ago. Kudos to Mt. Express for publishing their work.

    The connection between the Republican Party and Evangelical Right has been going on longer than the Reagan presidency or George Bush & Rove’s courting of the Moral Majority. This incredible essay examines the roots of this marriage and details how it developed and grew.

    Local journalism still has import, and local writers can contribute to the national debate. This is not just about Billy Graham and Richard Nixon. Huzzah Mt. Express.

    George Peery
    Asheville, NC

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