(2 of 3)
For a preacher who had no church, and who spent his life preaching to football stadiums full of people he never saw again, the First Families gave Graham the rare chance to be a family pastor. He gave them a sanctuary; they gave him a congregation. He carried the families through times of loss--literal and political; several wanted him to be with them during their last nights in the White House. Richard Nixon collapsed in Graham's arms at his mother's funeral in 1967. Bill Clinton took him to sit at the bedside of a dying friend in 1989. Graham was the first person outside the family whom Nancy Reagan called when her husband died in 2004. Last month, Johnson's daughters Lynda and Luci reached out to him as their mother was dying. Two days before she passed away, he called and talked to them, and since Lady Bird was awake and alert, they put the phone to her ear. The former First Lady and the former White House pastor chatted some and then shared a prayer together.
There's a reason, Luci Baines Johnson told us, that even First Families of very different political stripes rarely criticize one another. "It's not necessarily because we're so classy and nice," she said. "It's because we all empathize with each other, with the vulnerability and exposure and the demands on family life. Who needs that kind of life?" Political families could see that the Grahams shared similar burdens as his fame grew while his kids were still at home. "Once you've lost your privacy," Graham observed, "you realize you've lost an extremely valuable thing." That loss touches everyone: "It's hard on the children because they're looked at and watched everywhere." For more than 20 years, Graham's good friends George H.W. and Barbara Bush invited him and his wife every summer to Kennebunkport, Maine. They were very grateful when he took a walk on the beach one day in 1985 with their eldest son. George W. Bush said that encounter put him on a path to a new relationship with Jesus and "planted a mustard seed" in his soul. But a few years later, he got into an argument with his mother about who exactly could and could not get into heaven. Bush maintained that only born-again Christians were eligible for entrance, as he had been learning in his Bible study; Barbara Bush disagreed and telephoned Graham to let him settle the matter. The evangelist said that while the younger Bush's reading of the Bible might be technically correct, he warned both of them that no one should try to play God--for God alone knows who has or has not received Christ as their Saviour.
THE GREAT TEMPTATION
But how far could a pastor go without becoming part of the political game? Graham was the most famous preacher on earth. Simply by standing next to Presidents, he conferred a blessing both on them and on their policies. Every one of them was aware of this, in ways that Graham sometimes was not. Was it crossing a line when he invited presidential candidates to his crusades or sent along suggestions for their speeches at National Prayer Breakfasts? What about when he lobbied lawmakers on behalf of a poverty bill or an arms deal, or consulted with candidates on their campaign ads or their running mates? It was one thing to serve as Eisenhower's or Johnson's private pastor. But it was quite another to act as Nixon's political partner, carrying private messages to foreign heads of state, advising on campaign strategy and assembling evangelical leaders for private White House briefings.
There were times when Graham brought out the best in Nixon--and times as well when Nixon brought out the worst in Graham, most notoriously in the hideous February 1972 conversation in which Nixon went on about how the Jews who controlled the media were destroying the country and Graham went along. It was an exchange so vile, it raised the legitimate question of what exactly a President would have to do for Graham to stop consoling and begin confronting him on moral grounds. "I did misjudge him," Graham told us, and the pain of what he had said in the rarefied air of the Oval Office clearly still lingered more than 35 years later. "I don't understand it," he said. "I never thought that way, and I was just trying to agree with what he said or something."
A fiercely partisan Democrat told us that Graham, a registered Democrat all his life, wasn't complicated once you realized he was actually just a Republican. But that's too simple an explanation. Graham liked all the Presidents and regarded them first and foremost as his friends--with the intriguing exception of Jimmy Carter. The fellow born-again Southern Baptist was the only President ever to organize a local Graham crusade. But on the heels of Graham's crushing experience with the Nixon Administration, the evangelist recalibrated his relationship with the White House and kept his distance. "I looked on Carter as the President," Graham said. As other evangelical leaders emerged to play more muscular roles in politics in the late 1970s, Graham tried to warn them about the dangers they faced. In 1981 he declared that "Evangelicals can't be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle, to preach to all the people, right and left. I haven't been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will in the future."
From then on, Graham operated below the radar as three old friends--Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton--took their turns in the Oval Office. To his critics, the pastoral was political. The left deplored his spending the night with Bush on the day the Gulf War began; the right objected to his praying at Clinton's Inaugural. But Graham stood by them all, including his old charge George W. Bush, whom he publicly embraced on the final Sunday before the 2000 election--in Florida, of all places.
LESSONS OF A LIFETIME
When we went back for a final conversation in January 2007, it was clear that the pressure on Bush was also weighing on Graham. He said he did not want to "take sides on this Iraq thing," but he kept returning to the war in our conversation, without mentioning that his grandson was an Army Ranger serving there. "I'm getting a little depressed about Iraq," Graham admitted at one point. "Think of what it is doing to Bush. There doesn't seem to be any way out." The President, he said, had reached out in recent months on different subjects, trying to arrange a White House lunch or visit. "We've postponed it three times now. I've not been able to do it because of my wife. I felt badly."