From Pulpit to Politics, a World-Famous Evangelist Nearly a dozen U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Bush, have sought the spiritual counsel and political advice of evangelist Billy Graham.

From Pulpit to Politics, a World-Famous Evangelist

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The Reverend Billy Graham is often described as the global ambassador for Christianity - more than 400 crusades in 185 countries, reaching more than 200 million people. The evangelist is also the ultimate U.S. political insider, over time, developing a close relationship with 11 presidents. They go to him in times of need, for prayer and, yes, when they need a photo op.

He counseled President Ford to pardon Richard Nixon and the first President Bush on the eve of the First Gulf War. Graham was also close to first ladies, especially Nancy Reagan. His role is spelled out in a new book, "The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House." It's by Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Michael Duffy says Graham found politics irresistible.

Mr. MICHAEL DUFFY (Author, "The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House"): I mean, he really found politics a little seductive, and he talks about it that way. He sometimes wondered whether the devil wasn't at work because he felt really pulled.

NORRIS: Of all the presidents, who do you think had the most impact on him?

Mr. DUFFY: I think that different men had different impacts. He was obviously very close to Johnson. Johnson would have him over and stay up all night and pray until 3:00 in the morning. Johnson was very worried about death. Johnson had him in his plane because he was worried of going into storms on trips. On the same time, by 1963, Gallup us polling about whether Billy Graham should be the next president.

And so Johnson was concerned about Graham's political potential power. And when Graham received two million telegrams on the eve of the 1964 election, urging him to endorse Goldwater, Johnson said, come down to the ranch. We'll spend a weekend together. And so - it was about a personal connection between those two men and a political necessity, I think, that Johnson felt.

NORRIS: Billy Graham was very conflicted about the civil rights movement, both the politics and the protests.

Mr. DUFFY: In the 1950s, he was an early pioneer, particularly among Southern Baptists, and saying, I want my crusades to be integrated. And that was truly, particularly in that world, a radical thing. And he didn't go to certain cities that wouldn't integrate his crusades. He insisted that, not only the crusades, but the organizing sessions for the crusades be integrated. By the time he gets to the 1960s, as ahead as he was in the '50s, he's - falls behind a little bit, and I think because he did not like the way the civil rights movement became more radical and more violent. And by then, he is much closer to Johnson and especially to Richard Nixon.

NORRIS: Time magazine wrote that Graham had plunged into politics during the 1960 presidential campaign, I guess plunged deeper into politics…

Mr. DUFFY: Yeah.

NORRIS: …by saying that Kennedy's Catholicism was a legitimate issue for voters. Graham would later regret so public an involvement in the Nixon campaign. How did he get to be so close to President Nixon? And why the eventual regret?

Mr. DUFFY: You could write a whole book about the Graham-Nixon relationship. It lasted 40 years. They both got to know each other in the early '50s when they both young, up and coming. I think these were two, young men who actually became friends and who needed each other. Nixon needed someone who could talk to him in his language that Nixon did not know. And Graham needed a guide in Washington, someone who understood the place, someone who understood politics. He had been thrown into this political world at a very early age without much of a compass. It just so happens Nixon emerges to be his compass.

NORRIS: But he came to regret it. Why?

Mr. DUFFY: Well, by the time he becomes president and heads toward the second term, Graham becomes very close, not just to Nixon, but to some of his aides. He's involved in meetings and conversations about all sorts of political considerations. And he loses track of what that's doing. Even now, he is very sensitive about his relationship with Nixon. He realizes that he misjudged Nixon and did not see until after the deluge.

NORRIS: Now, he has a very different relationship with the current President Bush and the former President Bush. Is this because he sees great differences in them or because they approach him in a completely different way?

Mr. DUFFY: Well, I think the relationship between George Herbert Walker Bush and Billy Graham is the center of the whole question. Bush Sr.'s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, had reached out to Billy Graham in the mid-1950s and said, come to my house and lead a Bible study group. So Bush Sr., who we'll call 41, knew that Billy was close to his mother and gets to meet him in the 1960s.

They become friends during the Nixon years and then, of course, the summer encounters. And so to have him come to the, you know, the family reunion every year and talk about things like who goes to heaven and, you know, what is God like and what did Jesus really do and say, no family would ever forget moments like that. So people who worked for Bush Sr. said that Graham was the only person he really could let his hair down about with - about spiritual things.

NORRIS: And the relationship with the son?

Mr. DUFFY: It's very difficult to tease apart, but the story is just so, to remind, is that in one of the family gatherings in Kennebunkport in 1985, Mr. Graham led a sort of a Bible study class in front of the fire there. It's a story everyone knows. And one of the people who asked the most questions was then-40-year-old George W. Bush, who asked, what does it take to be a good Christian? Kind of a normal question. Bush was going through a lot of stuff in his own life. He'd had a drinking problem. He wasn't quite sure where his career was heading. They had a walk on the beach that set him on a course toward rediscovering his faith.

NORRIS: In between the two Presidents Bush, there was President Clinton, of course. And I want to ask you about Billy Graham's relationship with President Clinton. He was counseled against participating even in his inauguration. How, and what kind of relationship did they develop? And I'm wondering particularly the relationship between those two men when Clinton weathered some very difficult storms, the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Mr. DUFFY: They begin to be friends in the mid-1980s. Graham had this way of finding young politicians and getting to know them before they become presidents. It's true of all of these people.

NORRIS: He's an amazing talent spotter.

Mr. DUFFY: He's got a great eye for horse flesh(ph). So that by the time Clinton runs in 1992 - he's known him for nearly a decade and they've been corresponding. And almost from the beginning of the Clinton administration, conservative Christians, particularly some religious leaders, were just all over Clinton for his personal habits.

Even before the inauguration, Graham didn't go there. From the start, he was trying to be of assistance to Clinton. He made it clear he wasn't going to engage in that kind of stuff. And by the time Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks in 1998, Graham is really the first public religious figure to counsel forgiveness. In March, about two months after it breaks, he goes on the "Today" show and says, you know, he's a handsome guy. You ought to forgive him.

What we discovered, in the course of doing the book, is that while he was saying those things in public, he was counseling Hillary Clinton in private to also forgive him. And she told us that when a lot of other people were saying, you ought to leave him, he was one of the loudest and clearest voices in private to say, you have to the hard thing, which is you have to forgive him.

NORRIS: How is he doing now? And do we expect that he might develop a close relationship with the next president?

Mr. DUFFY: Well, he does keep a close eye on politics, he told us. He doesn't know John McCain, but he knew his father. He has never met Mitt Romney, but he thinks that he has to deal with the religious question the way Jack Kennedy did, just come out and deal with it at some point. And he has been close to Hillary Clinton now for, you know, almost 20 years. And he told us that he likes her a lot. And he follows her closely.

NORRIS: Thank you very, Michael, for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. DUFFY: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: Michael Duffy is the co-author, along with Nancy Gibbs, of "The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House."

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