In the weeks after John F. Kennedy won one of the closest presidential elections in American history, Kennedy’s father asked the president-elect to seek an audience with famed evangelist Billy Graham. Kennedy balked at the request. Graham had supported Kennedy’s opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, in the race. Furthermore, Graham’s father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, had declared Protestants to be “soft” on Catholicism and had participated in a meeting of Protestant clergy that questioned a Catholic’s fitness to serve as president.
Kennedy was understandably wary of Graham, but he eventually acceded to his father’s request. In December 1960, Graham and Kennedy played a round of golf together, posing for photos in natty sport coats. For the Kennedy camp, those photos were priceless. Graham’s approval signaled to many Protestants that Kennedy could be trusted to lead the nation.
In hindsight, this story seems even more remarkable. In 1960, Graham was 42 years old. He hailed from a religious tradition, Southern evangelicalism, which had not exerted significant political influence for more than a generation. His crusades had brought Graham worldwide fame, but he stated repeatedly that his mission was to save souls, not to traffic in politics. And when Graham did wade into politics—which happened increasingly—he betrayed a deep fondness for Nixon. That Kennedy would place high priority on courting favor from a Nixon-supporting Southern evangelist tells us something about the kind of power Graham had amassed during the first decade of his public ministry.
But at what cost?
That question occupies center stage in two recent biographies of Billy Graham: The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (Center Street, 2007) by Time magazine columnists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, and The Prince of War (Brave Ulysses Books, 2007) by Mountain Xpress reporter Cecil Bothwell. The books are quite different, as a glance at their respective covers reveals. Gibbs and Duffy’s volume features a picture of an older Graham in a posture of prayer, surrounded by the presidential seal. In the reflected glare of the presidency, the image suggests, Graham fell on his knees before God. His relationship with the powerful did not derail his focus on God.
In contrast, The Prince of War features a black-and-white photograph of Graham laughing inside the White House during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Onlookers smile, as if Graham has just delivered the punch line of an inside joke. He appears no different from the politicos around him. If the cover of The Preacher and the Presidents displays Graham as humbly reliant on God, The Prince of War depicts Graham’s smug satisfaction with his access to power. Indeed, he appears to have sacrificed his faith on the altar of the American presidency.
Chaplain to power
Gibbs and Duffy narrate Graham’s rise to power as the story of an overeager but well-meaning preacher who did wonders for the powerful men to whom he ministered. Especially in the early part of his career, Graham comes off as a striver who was keen on winning audiences with presidents and who fancied himself something of a political adviser. Some of the presidents Graham counseled counted on the evangelist to take the pulse of Christian voters. Others tossed him political crumbs that had little relevance to policy-making. In both cases, say the authors, Graham maintained a consistent message that elevated individual salvation over political calculations. He liked playing politics but knew that preaching the gospel was his real game.
Presidents loved Graham because he seemed utterly committed to the saving of souls. As Gibbs and Duffy explain, Graham’s intimacy with so many presidents hinged on their belief that he posed no threat to them politically. Accustomed to dealing with men and women intent on wrangling favors and concessions, presidents relished Graham’s seeming innocence. He demanded few favors and offered both political and spiritual support in return.
The chief success of The Preacher and the Presidents lies in its attention to the pastoral aspect of Graham’s ministry to White House occupants. While many authors have noted how presidents have used Graham for political advantage—a reality Gibbs and Duffy do not ignore—few biographers have demonstrated how important Graham was in many presidents’ spiritual lives. Graham connected with presidents. As the world’s most famous evangelist, he understood the perils of fame. He knew that presidents wanted affirmation, not judgment. He never attacked them in public and shied away from chiding them in private. Critics painted Graham as an enabler, unwilling to speak truth to power. Graham, however, believed he was uniquely suited to ministering to presidents, and he refused to jeopardize that ministry by calling them on the carpet. As a result, presidents from Eisenhower to George W. Bush relished his pastoral attention. Lyndon Johnson invited Graham to the White House at some of the most trying times of his presidency; Ronald Reagan turned to Graham for support when the Iran-Contra scandal flared up; the Clintons counted on Graham to shepherd them through the Monica Lewinsky ordeal. The intimacy Graham forged with presidents led at least three of them—Johnson, Nixon and Reagan—to ask him to preach at their funerals.
Gibbs and Duffy also suggest that Graham’s persistence in seeing the good in others allowed him to maintain a faith in the honor of his presidential friends. Graham’s naiveté cost him on several occasions, most notably as he doggedly defended the integrity of Richard Nixon during most of the Watergate crisis. But Gibbs and Duffy largely absolve Graham of blame for his mistaken appraisal of Nixon. While they say that Graham was “complicit” in Nixon’s Machiavellian schemes, Gibbs and Duffy point out that he knew nothing of the worst “White House horrors” and “could not imagine” that Nixon would lie to him. They praise Graham’s handling of the Watergate aftermath, when the evangelist encouraged Gerald Ford to pardon Nixon and made repeated attempts to counsel the disgraced former president. Gibbs and Duffy see Graham as susceptible to the temptations of power but fundamentally goodhearted, an honest preacher of the gospel to men who needed to hear the message.
Cecil Bothwell thinks otherwise. Bothwell opens his unauthorized biography by describing his reaction to the March 2002 publication of several recordings from the Nixon White House. One of these recordings captured a 90-minute conversation in which Nixon and Graham discussed Jewish influence on the American media. Graham lamented the “stranglehold” he felt Jews maintained over the national media, saying that Jews “don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”
Graham’s stark bigotry demands explanation. Gibbs and Duffy admit that Graham was “lost in the toxic fumes” of the presidency, and they note his well-publicized contrition in the wake of the recording’s publication. In Gibbs and Duffy’s retelling, the “Jew conversation” represents an unusual step out of character for Graham, a moment when he made a terrible mistake and departed from his core principles. Bothwell, on the other hand, sees the conversation about Jews as a revealing window into Graham’s soul. Bothwell’s Graham is neither naive nor goodhearted. Rather, Bothwell gives us a Graham who shrewdly managed his public image while offering religious blessing to both prejudice and war.
Some of Bothwell’s critiques deserve more attention than Graham’s supporters tend to give them. The preacher’s relationship to the civil rights movement, for example, is more complex than is often acknowledged. Graham deserves credit for desegregating his Southern crusades as early as 1952. But in the tense atmosphere of the 1960s, Graham denounced civil rights agitators. And his endorsement of “law and order” meshed nicely with Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” a campaign tactic designed to attract Southern whites to the Republican banner by denouncing liberal activists. This involved playing on whites’ racial fears in the wake of desegregation, and Bothwell rightly highlights how Graham’s rhetoric favored authority over racial justice.
Bothwell also exposes some of Graham’s more deplorable attitudes toward war. Notably, in 1969, Graham recommended that Nixon “bomb the dikes” in North Vietnam. Destroying dikes would, as Graham noted, demolish the North’s economy. Destroying dikes is also a war crime. Some estimates suggested that bombing the dikes in Vietnam would result in 1 million deaths. Graham’s endorsement of such an action displays a shocking failure in moral judgment. And while this instance marked a nadir in Graham’s advice to Nixon, he avoided asking hard questions about the morality of the Vietnam War until the conflict had nearly ended. For a variety of reasons, Graham thought it best to profess his faith in the judgment of the powers that be. One might expect more from someone who exerted spiritual authority over the most powerful men in the world.
In fact, Graham realized this as his career progressed, though Bothwell fails to note the development. By the late 1970s, Graham was stumping for Jimmy Carter’s Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, earning him the enmity of political conservatives. Graham bucked Reagan’s advice and accepted a Soviet-sponsored invitation to preach in Moscow in 1982. He told the president that he sensed a spiritual revival behind the Iron Curtain and renounced his earlier support for nuclear buildup. Bothwell merely notes that Graham refused to testify before Congress about arms limitation. But since the mid-‘70s, the evangelist’s record on arms control is unequivocal. To suggest that Graham was somehow shirking the topic distorts the historical record.
Overall, Bothwell allows Graham no room to grow and change. He focuses most of his book on the evangelist’s early career, when Graham’s politics lacked the nuance and ethical seriousness his later statements displayed. Graham learned from his mistakes—most notably after Watergate—and he recalibrated his relationship with the presidency. Graham refused many of Reagan’s requests for political favors, even though he considered the Californian the closest of his presidential friends. Graham also distanced himself from the Christian right. But because members of that movement cited Graham’s early flirtations with the White House as inspiration, Bothwell intimates that Graham was the spiritual father of the Christian right. Such a conclusion depends on a sketchy chronology and spotty causality.
It’s a shame that Bothwell’s book lacks nuance and depends on specious evidence, because it could have performed the vital service of offering an unflinching look at the harmful effects of religion in politics. Graham needs critics. His grandfatherly image and astounding record of service in ministry have caused many supporters to sanitize his career. It’s easy to forget that Graham elbowed his way into the White House and benefited as much from his interaction with U.S. presidents as they did from association with him. He was nothing if not a striver, and his ambition caused many missteps. Graham’s career offers a cautionary tale for preachers involving themselves in politics. Unfortunately, Bothwell narrows his potential audience by maligning a man whom many have fast-tracked for Protestant sainthood. Graham’s legions of devotees have legitimate reasons to celebrate him. Had Bothwell acknowledged those reasons, his critique might have caused some to investigate their hero’s mistakes. Instead, The Prince of War largely preaches to the choir of the secular left.
Billy Graham’s close friendship with eight chief executives is unprecedented in American history. No other preacher has come close to matching that feat, and the authors of these two books offer differing appraisals of how Graham used his extraordinary access to power.
I suspect, however, that neither book will do much to change the minds of readers. Gibbs and Duffy offer a nuanced appraisal of Graham’s pastoral concerns for U.S. presidents, showing him to be a kind and faithful servant of White House occupants. Bothwell, conversely, takes aim at Graham’s war-friendly mentality and selective memory in order to expose the evangelist as a greedy power monger. Readers’ reactions to both books will probably depend largely on their previously held views of Graham.
Meanwhile, there is still much more to be said about Graham. He personified the “Southernization” of American culture during an era when the U.S. elected eight consecutive presidents from the Sun Belt. (Gerald Ford hailed from Michigan, but he was not elected to the presidency.) It’s no coincidence that Graham found much in common with these men. He shared their worldview and their religious sensibilities. Understanding Graham’s political legacy depends on a richer appraisal of the ways Southern history and culture shaped both his ministry to the presidents and his influence on American religious life, themes that forthcoming books from Steven Miller and Grant Wacker promise to cover in greater depth.
Even so, The Preacher and the Presidents and The Prince of War render a valuable service. By providing conflicting accounts of a life lived in the public eye, these two books reveal the fundamental difficulty of biography. If the authors have failed to offer perspective on every aspect of Graham’s career, they nonetheless move conversations about his legacy forward.
[Seth Dowland teaches in the Duke University Writing Program. He received his Ph.D. from Duke in American religious history earlier this year.]
The Prince of War
Author Cecil Bothwell will make upcoming appearances at the following venues to promote his new book, The Prince of War:
• Friday, Nov. 16, 1-4 p.m.: Touchstone Gallery (318 N. Main St. Hendersonville)
• Saturday, Nov. 17, 7 p.m.: Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St., Asheville)
• Friday, Nov. 30, 7 p.m.: City Lights Book Store (3 East Jackson St., Sylva)
• Saturday, Dec. 8, 2 p.m.: The Open Book (110 S. Pleasantburg Drive, Greenville, S.C.)