You have to climb a steep and narrow road, past the moonshiners' shacks and dense rhododendrons and through the iron gates to get to the house on the mountaintop that Ruth Graham built after her husband Billy became too famous to live anywhere else. By 1954, after she caught her children charging tourists a nickel to take a picture of their old house and noticed Billy crawling across the floor of his study to keep people outside from catching a glimpse of him, she knew it was time to move.
So up the mountain they went, and now, decades later, the house looks as if it just grew there naturally, instead of being assembled out of pieces Ruth salvaged from older cabins and then put back together like Lincoln Logs. The Graham home is modest in style but had plenty of room over the years for their five children and the family dogs, not to mention the visitors who came by. Fellow preachers and Presidents, moguls and movie stars, icons like Muhammad Ali--all visited with the Grahams here. Bono once showed up and played songs on the piano in the living room. It's a house of surprise rooms and fireplaces and winding halls filled with souvenirs of their travels. And now it's a little too quiet.
We first met Billy Graham in the winter of 2006, when after long negotiations, we were invited to talk to him about the one topic in his much examined life that he rarely discussed: his intense private and public relationships with every President going back to Harry Truman. He wasn't doing many interviews anymore, especially since Ruth was now quite ill and he didn't like leaving her side. But he was willing to share some final lessons and confessions as his life and ministry began to wind down.
At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we thought Graham's 50-year courtship of--and courtship by--11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people. We wondered what the world's most powerful men wanted from the world's most famous preacher. What worried them, and what calmed them? "Their personal lives--some of them--were difficult," he told us. "But I loved them all. I admired them all. I knew that they had burdens beyond anything I could ever know or understand."
And we wondered, too, how all that time in the White House changed Graham. What temptations did he face, what compromises did he have to make to preserve his access to the Oval Office without becoming a serial prisoner of the men he informally served? In our conversations over the course of 13 months, Graham talked candidly about the dangers of power and politics, about how it was a struggle for him for all those years and about what he learned. "I was aware of the risk at all times, political risk," he said. "Politics has always been ugly to me, and yet I accept that as a fact of life. The emphasis I tried to leave was love, not ... my own love for them but that they need to have love for the people who were opposed to them."
MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH
Billy Graham radiates qualities a president seldom encounters during office hours: innocence, guilelessness, sincerity strong as paint stripper. "I'm not an analyzer," he told us. "I've got a son that analyzes everything and everybody. But I don't analyze people." His critics called him gullible, naive to the point of self-delusion; his defenders, of which there were a great many more, called him trusting, always seeing the best in powerful people and frequently eliciting it as a result.
So when Graham was around, Presidents found themselves at ease, not on edge. They could tell that Graham wasn't there to lobby or confront but to listen and comfort. Because he made it safe to ask the simplest spiritual questions, conversations with Graham had a way of circling around to the eternal, to sin and salvation and to what death really means. Back in 1955, when Dwight Eisenhower had become Graham's first real friend in the White House, he used to press the evangelist on how people can really know if they are going to heaven. "I didn't feel that I could answer his question as well as others could have," Graham told us. But he got better at it with practice. John F. Kennedy wanted to talk about how the world would end--more than an abstract conversation for the first generation of Presidents who had the ability to make that happen.
Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with his own mortality. "He was always a little bit scared of death," Graham said, and thus wanted a preacher handy--like the time he talked Graham into flying to a convention with him because the weather was so bad, he thought the plane might crash. Having entered office in the shadow of the Kennedy assassination, Johnson was conscious of how a President's death can shatter a country. Long before his Administration collapsed and he announced that he would not seek a second term in 1968, Johnson privately told Graham what he was thinking. "It was in the family dining room," Graham recalled, where Johnson reviewed his family's medical history; he had had a secret actuarial study done in 1967 to predict his life expectancy and determine whether he would be exposing the public to the death of another sitting President. "I may not live through this," Johnson told Graham. "I've already had one heart attack. I don't think that's fair to the people or to my party."
The President even scripted his own exit. One day Johnson took Graham on a walk around his Texas ranch, to a clearing in the trees near where his parents were buried. Johnson wanted to know if he would see them again in heaven. And then another question: Would Billy preach at his funeral? Johnson knew the world listens when a President dies. "Don't use any notes," he said, and no fancy eulogizing either. "I want you to look in those cameras and just tell 'em what Christianity is all about. Tell 'em how they can be sure they can go to heaven. I want you to preach the Gospel." And just one more thing. "Somewhere in there, you tell 'em a few things I did for this country."
When he got home, Graham wrote to Johnson, expressing his love and reassurance, in case Johnson still had any doubts. "We are not saved because of our own accomplishments," Graham reminded the President. "I am not going to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds or read the Bible many times. I'm going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment: 'Lord, remember me.'"