Billy Graham, “pastor to presidents,” touched millions of people around the world through his ministry. Young and old, rich and poor, ordinary and powerful. And the message of the Gospel that Mr. Graham preached broke down barriers and brought an untold number of people to the Lord.
From Harry Truman to Donald Trump, before he entered politics, Mr. Graham met 13 of the last 14 presidents at least once, and the North Carolina evangelist was able to develop a personal friendship with half of them.
But this remarkable influence almost never got off the ground after his first presidential meeting in the White House.
When Mr. Graham met President Harry Truman at the White House in 1950, it was the first time he had met a world leader, and the preacher and his team made a critical mistake. Though they had a positive conversation with Truman, they naively told eager news media members everything they had discussed, including the president’s comments, and even reenacted the moment when they prayed with him.
In his book, “Just As I Am,” Mr. Graham wrote, “It began to dawn on me a few days later how we had abused the privilege of seeing the President. National coverage of our visit was definitely not to our advantage. The President was offended that I had quoted him without authorization, Drew Pearson observed in his syndicated column, and now I was persona non grata at the White House. And Pearson was right. Mr. Truman never asked me to come back.”
It was a mistake that Mr. Graham never repeated, and he “apologized profusely” to Truman years later.
Over the next several decades, Mr. Graham accepted invitations to meet with each U.S. president, regardless of political party, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and offering pastoral counsel in the Oval Office. For several presidents, he became a unique confidant, and someone of whom they asked eternal questions.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower inquired about whether or not Heaven was real after a series of health complications, while the two were staying at his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As president-elect, John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, drew on Mr. Graham’s influence to gain a rapport with the nation’s Protestant majority. Kennedy also questioned the Catholic church’s teaching on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and asked Mr. Graham’s thoughts on it from the Protestant perspective.
In a moment of regret, Mr. Graham talks about how he declined an invitation to ride with President Kennedy after the 1963 National Prayer Breakfast, which Mr. Graham helped start years earlier with President Eisenhower. Several months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Looking back, Mr. Graham wondered what Kennedy wanted to discuss and if he lost the opportunity to have a spiritual conversation with the nation’s second-youngest president.
It was in that moment of crisis that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became the next president, and Mr. Graham became close to the politician he described as a “mountain of a man with a whirlwind for a heart.” The evangelist had a deep personal friendship with Johnson. In fact, Mr. Graham was among the first to know that Johnson would not seek another term due to a history of heart conditions in his family; many of them had died in their 60s. Johnson, who was 61 when he left office, died almost four years later.
Mr. Graham got to know Johnson’s successor, President Richard Nixon, through Nixon’s mother, Hannah, who attended the Los Angeles Crusade in 1949. Throughout what Mr. Graham considered a deep friendship with Nixon, he strongly believed that the 37th president was a pious Christian man. It was a conclusion he came to question, as the Watergate scandal began to emerge.
“Looking back these forty-five years later, considering all that has intervened, I wonder whether I might have exaggerated his spirituality in my own mind,” he reflected.
Through the Watergate tapes, Mr. Graham saw a different side to Nixon, who eventually resigned over the scandal, and it grieved his heart.
“As I have said, I wanted to believe the best about him for as long as I could. When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me.”
Mr. Graham continued to accept invitations to meet with every successive president, from Presidents Gerald Ford to George H.W. Bush (whom he formed a close, decades-long friendship) to Barack Obama, and offered his spiritual support and prayer. But after Nixon, Mr. Graham approached the relationships with a greater awareness of the pitfalls that proximity to power can bring.
As time passed and Mr. Graham’s health began to decline, his time in the White House became less frequent, though he did make one notable trip to Washington, D.C., after 9/11 at the request of President George W. Bush, who credited Mr. Graham for helping him turn to Christ and away from alcoholism as a young husband and father.
Over his many decades of public ministry, Billy Graham became synonymous with several labels, including “pastor to presidents” and “America’s pastor.” His words comforted a country that was still reeling from 9/11 at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service on Sept. 14, 2001.
A worldwide audience watched that service, and it was fitting that Mr. Graham’s words of hope were spoken before an audience that included all five living presidents at the time.
Billy Graham, who could so easily span the political divides of Congress and the White House, never lost sight of the cross of Christ as his main message. As the divisiveness in the country continues to increase, his ability to bring people together is profoundly missed.
Above: Billy Graham and Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office.
Photo: ©1968 BGEA