The Preacher and the Presidents

Billy Graham in the White House


By Nancy Gibbs

By Michael Duffy

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No one man or woman has ever been in a position to see the presidents, and the presidency, so intimately, over so many years. They called him in for photo opportunities. They called for comfort. They asked about death and salvation; about sin and forgiveness.

At a time when the nation is increasingly split over the place of religion in public life, The Preachers and the Presidents reveals how the world’s most powerful men and world’s most famous evangelist, Billy Graham, knit faith and politics together.


Praise for

"Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy's smartly written, thoroughly researched book… represents a major advance in our understanding of Graham and, more broadly, religion in modern American political life. The authors, both prize-winning journalists at TIME magazine, not only know how to tell a fast-paced story, but also know how to ask the right questions of the many people—including Graham and former presidents—they interviewed."

Chicago Tribune

"Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, both veterans at TIME magazine, have that peculiar gift among newsmagazine writers for being able to shape masses of complex and contradictory information into a compelling narrative."



New York Times

"A fresh view on how evangelical Christianity gained such influence in politics."

Washington Post

"Gibbs and Duffy maintain a balance between the political and the personal… [They] marvelously dramatize Graham and Nixon's fraught, intimate relationship."

Publishers Weekly

"Long before Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson roiled politics from the edges, Billy Graham towered over the centers of political and religious power, and presidents genuflected before his influence. THE PREA CHER AND THE PRESIDENTS tells the story that needed to be told and tells it splendidly. Gibbs and Duffy write with a shrewd sense of how politics works, a sure grasp of history, and a genuine appreciation for the power of religious faith."

— E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics

"A fascinating book that exposes the many dangers when representatives of the kingdom 'not of this world' become too close to representatives of an earthly kingdom."

— Cal Thomas, syndicated columnist


Afterword Copyright © 2008 by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Excerpts from Billy Graham's autobiography, Just As I Am, © 1997 by Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Used with permission of HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

Excerpts from Henry Luce Archives, copyright © 2007, reprinted with the permission of the trustees of the trusts under Article 14 of the will of Henry R. Luce, as appointed.

Letters from Billy Graham to Henry Luce, 1950–1960, © Billy Graham, used by permission, all rights reserved.

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First eBook Edition: March 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59995-038-9


The Lions and the Lamb

Montreat, North Carolina, is a cove made of rocks and woods tucked at the foot of Greybeard Mountain, where it is easy to feel safe. A tourist who stopped and asked where Billy Graham lived was likely to be told, "Gee, I don't really know." But everyone knew. He lived with his wife, Ruth, on the mountaintop, in the house she had built out of pieces of old log cabins more than half a century ago; this was where he came home after his travels, and where in twilight he finally came home to stay.

Maybe everyone needs a sanctuary, a place to find peace, reflect on a life well lived and what lies ahead. But this life was like no other; it was lived, perhaps more than any in modern times or any time, in full view, unguarded. Billy Graham is believed to have spoken face-to-face with more people in more places than anyone in history, having preached the gospel to 210 million people in 185 countries in 417 crusades over the course of more than half a century. Not even Billy Sunday or Dwight L. Moody or any of the great evangelists going back to Saint Paul had spread their message so far; it was Billy Graham alone, inserted into history at just the ripe moment, who became the unrivaled global ambassador for Christ.

His crusades took something out of him. It was not unusual for him to drop fifteen, twenty pounds over the course of several weeks of preaching every night. "I have often gone on a three- or six-month crusade," he told Lyndon Johnson, who was adjusting to postpresidential exile, "I jet home to the quietness of this mountain, and for the first few days I hardly know what to do with myself. There even come times of depression. However, that all soon passes."

The road to his house is tight and winding; two cars would have to inhale to pass in opposite directions. On a winter day the clouds hang below the treeline, and the branches stretch old and bony as far as you can see. The final, steep stretch of road ends with a weather-beaten shingle sign reading "Private Drive," then chain link topped with barbed wire and a set of automatic iron gates. These were installed in 1968, at the insistence of J. Edgar Hoover, because the death threats were becoming so common, and American icons were being shot that year. Before that the Grahams had been content for protection with signs that said "Trespassers will be Eaten."

At the top of the drive is a rain-soaked, brown-logged, stone-and-shingle place that looks like it rose up naturally, as though someone dropped some timber and it grew up to be a house. There's no sign, no post, no box, no indication that anyone of note lives inside, other than a lot of room for cars and what seems like a lot of dogs.

The first time we visited, we walked in the side door into a long hall that smelled of something we couldn't place, sweet and spicy, not quite dessert, like some kind of perfect incense of home. There were American antiques everywhere, sturdy and hand-hewn and crafted with purpose, thick chairs, a spinning wheel, as well as a Chinese cabinet, porcelains, photos and paintings on the walls, a life's collection of travels. A lazy Susan table stood in front of the oven in the dark wood kitchen/family room, and cookies and a pie sat on the stovetop. Discreet but central on one wall was a huge flat-screen television, and all the papers lay on the table, not just the New York Times but the London Telegraph. Under the piano in the living room was a big basket of books, with Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat on top. Over the immense brick fireplace, a mantel had been hewn out of an old diving board, stained dark and etched in German with the message "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

Billy Graham was sitting in the darkened family room, his walker beside him, and rose slowly to greet his guests. He was frailer than we'd expected; he had Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer, and a shunt in his brain to drain the extra fluid. There came a time most days when a powerful pain came over him, a feeling he described as being like an octopus had wrapped itself around him and begun to squeeze. So he timed his visits carefully, to see guests only during his good hours, typically around midday. His eyes were failing: once, many years before, when a mysterious arterial spasm affected his vision, people wrote to Graham headquarters offering to donate their eyes to him. His voice was quiet, sweet in greeting, his manner somehow friendly and courtly at the same time. "I'm honored you've come," he said, and he suggested, almost urgently, that we go back to his office and get started.

He led the way down halls that veered at odd angles, the tennis balls gripping the feet of his walker, heading past the living room and bedrooms and back to his private study, a prefabricated room shipped to the mountaintop and attached to the log house where he could write his sermons, escape the noise, the visitors, the children. It was not a big room, but it had a big window and deep chairs, bookcases full of Bibles and memoirs. There were no photographs of the vast crowds at his crusades, a hundred thousand in Yankee Stadium, a quarter million in Brazil, well over a million in Seoul. But there was one of the plain white spire of the chapel in the woods near where he and Ruth had planned to be buried. There were no souvenirs of his glory, only reminders of his friends: not only the presidents but the queen of England, who invited him to visit a dozen times, all the former prime ministers of Britain, the chancellors of Germany, the movie stars and sports icons—Muhammad Ali had come here to the house, and Bono, who sat in the living room and played the piano and sang—and an unimaginable variety of people seeking answers to the most simple of all questions.

The walls were a window into Graham's other ministry, so public and so private at the same time: Graham the friend of the famous and, above all, the pastor to presidents. We had written about politics for years, covered campaigns, watched White House warriors come and go. But no one had done what Graham had done, no statesman, no wise man, no professor or fixer or fund-raiser or image maker: befriend eleven presidents in a row, men vastly different from one another who all found both a need and a use for this one man. He knew every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and while it is impossible to know who valued the arrangement more, there had never been anything like it in any generation. It reflected some quality, maybe some measure of power he had that even they couldn't match.

We wanted to know why they all called: what was it about him, and about them, and about the presidency, that explained this abiding attention? Quite apart from the mutually useful public alliance, we wondered what happened when these men who spent their lives onstage, preacher and presidents, retreated behind the curtain and talked in private for hours. We wanted to learn how Graham managed to be so close to the white-hot center for so long and still maintain his honor and reputation; we wondered if there was a price he paid.

And finally, we came at a time when the country was having one of its recurring arguments over the role of faith in public life. Mahatma Gandhi said that those who believe that religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. Billy Graham more than anyone had moved in both realms, tried for decades to bring them closer together, and by doing so learned the value of keeping them apart. Reporters had tried and failed in recent years to get him to enter the ring, weigh in on abortion and stem cells, gay marriage, the right to die: "I don't give advice," he said again and again. "I'm going to stay off these hot-button issues." He was inclined to leave it at that, embracing his role as God's servant, not His lawyer. He had come a very long way since the day in 1952 when he declared with youthful enthusiasm that he could swing sixteen million evangelical votes just by saying the word. We wanted to understand how he had changed, and what he would tell anyone who hoped to follow his path.

From long experience came a firm judgment: he did not want to be dividing people by using faith as a political test or a trap or a weapon. He had come by his conviction fitfully, after encounters with some presidents that threatened to wreck his ministry. On matters of faith his certainty had never faltered; on matters of politics he now had his doubts. "As I look back I feel even more unqualified, to think I sat there and talked to the president of the United States. I can only explain that God was planning it in some ways but I didn't understand it." He prayed for them still; he and Ruth did daily devotions, and whoever was president was in their prayers.


We knew that there were millions of people inclined to see Graham as a saint; we'd also encountered those who dismissed him as a showman, a sycophant, or a pawn of powerful men, with a mass-market message too silky and simple to merit further study. Graham agreed to talk to us without any conditions or control over what we would write. He had one challenge to us as we set out: "I hope it will just be fair and honest and tell the bad and the good."

Unless you've been in his presence, it's hard to capture its effect. Many people said he was the most charismatic man they ever met. His was not a dazzling intellect—as he often said, "I don't care who you are. Your intellect alone will never get you into heaven." It was a different quality, a sincerity like paint stripper, removing any pretense and pride. He volunteered regrets before we probed for them. In the hours of discussion that followed our first meeting, he was perfectly transparent about his own failures, but slow to pass judgment on anyone else. We are all sinners, he said, in search of grace.

The presidency giveth and it taketh away, and the first thing it removes is the possibility of uncomplicated friendship: but Billy Graham was wired for simplicity, not skepticism. "I'm not an analyzer," he told us. "I don't analyze people. I got a son that analyzes everything and everybody. But I don't analyze people." His critics called him gullible, naïve to the point of self-delusion; his defenders, of whom there were a great many more, called him trusting, always seeing the best in powerful people and often eliciting it as a result. Where both agreed was that his agenda—to spread the gospel of redeeming love—applied as much to his Oval Office ministry as to his global one. "I think at times they turn to things that are far beyond them," he said, referring to the occupants of the White House, "and they have nowhere else to go."

Of the eleven presidents he'd known, ten became friends, and seven of them close ones. They entered into an unspoken covenant of private counsel and public support. The presidents called for comfort; they asked the simplest questions: How do I know if I'll go to heaven? Eisenhower wanted to know. Do you believe in the Second Coming? Kennedy wondered. Will I see my parents when I die? Johnson asked. They asked about how the world would end, which was not an abstract conversation for the first generation of presidents who had the power to make that happen. They recalled their mothers' strong faith, and looked to linger a while with their childhood certainties; when jaded aides smirked at the mention of Graham's name, presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton dressed them down. By 1969, Graham was so important—and so well positioned—with both political parties that he could seamlessly spend the last weekend of Johnson's presidency in the White House and stay over to spend the first night with Nixon as well. The week before Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, he tracked Graham down to talk it through; that conversation, Ford said later, was crucial. Nancy Reagan called him to the hospital the day her husband was shot; twenty-three years later he was the first person outside the family she called when he died. When Hillary Clinton felt no one in the world understood how she could forgive her husband, Graham pointedly praised her for it. Graham was uniquely able to give presidents what they needed most, Bill Clinton observed. "I don't think presidents need anything from pastors other people don't. They need prayers, support, counsel, and honest, often vulnerable conversation," he said. But "those things are harder for presidents to get because they're busy, protected, often isolated, and understandably reluctant to share their frailties and fear. Billy was a great pastor to me and other presidents because he was wise, trustworthy, politically astute, and generous in spirit." The presidents, and the First Ladies, could summon Graham to the White House confident that there would never be an unpleasant conversation, never a rise in temperature, never a leak to the press; that was the safe zone he tried to create. "I think they began to realize that if I didn't quote them, they could talk to me about their personal feelings and problems and pray with me," he said. "Their personal lives, some of them, were difficult. But I loved them all, I admired them all. I knew that they had burdens beyond anything I could ever know or understand."

One price of holding the most powerful job in the world is the residue of regret when it's over. "Every president I think I've ever known, except Truman, has thought they didn't quite get what they wanted done," Graham said. "And toward the end of their administration, they were disappointed and wished they'd done some things differently." He saw the job grow more crushing with each administration, particularly as his great friend Nixon collapsed under the weight of Watergate. We've turned our presidents into kings, he said then: "Every president needs some people around him who still call him by his first name and tell him exactly what they think…. He becomes isolated partially because even his friends are afraid to tell him the truth. Everybody needs some friends around him who will just say, 'You are wrong!' And that includes me."

Had the convenant stopped there, had he been an unknown pastor slipping into the White House through some back door to hear their confessions and swap war stories, the whole transaction might have been a private matter. But Graham was the most famous preacher on earth, and nothing he did went unnoticed. The very fact of his presence was news. And no matter how discreet he was about the private conversations, he invariably sent a public message, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes because he couldn't resist.

This is where the temptation came in, on both sides. Every president had political troubles that Graham was uniquely positioned to relieve, often simply by standing next to him. Eisenhower enlisted religion's rising star in the war against "Godless Communism"; Kennedy invited him down for a round of golf four days before his inauguration to reassure Protestants about the prospect of a Catholic president. Johnson used him to convince conservative Baptists that the War on Poverty was scripturally sound. Reagan sent him to help persuade pro-Israel evangelicals that it was safe to sell AWACS to Saudi Arabia. George Herbert Walker Bush wanted him by his side the night before the first Gulf War, Clinton at Oklahoma City, George W. Bush after 9/11, and just about every one of them on Inauguration Day. They may have come to love him and need him; but that didn't mean they couldn't also use him. And many presidents were surrounded by men who had little scruple about drafting so willing and valuable an ally into their army.

Graham rejected the charge that he was being exploited on such occasions. He believed completely in the supreme and sacred nature of the presidency—not that presidents weren't human, as he had plainly seen. He just believed they would always put the public interest over partisan ones once in office. He told them each that he believed they were God's choice to lead the country, even when he didn't quite understand God's thinking. Graham's was a gospel of obedience, above all to the Almighty, but there always seemed to be a natural transfer to the man in power, a deep predisposition to trust and obey and "build a wall of prayer around him."

And the covenant worked both ways. In return he got to indulge what he admitted was a deep fascination with politics. He told Truman after they met—he was only thirty-one, but a rising evangelical star already—that "I follow political trends carefully and would be delighted at any time to advise you on my findings among the people." He advised Eisenhower and Nixon about which states to focus on, how to use their television ad budgets to best effect. Decades later when he was with candidates, he still wanted to talk about campaigns, political strategies, styles of leadership. However divided the country became, Graham remained close to politicians from across the spectrum. Even in twilight, he kept up with the debates—and he lived in a house divided: "I watch CNN a great deal," he said. "My wife watches Fox." His eyes twinkled. "That gives us something to talk about sometimes."

More important, he saw how much his political ministry served his spiritual one. His relationships with presidents and prime ministers helped him revive evangelicalism at midcentury and usher it into the American mainstream. He fought to witness in places no evangelist ever had, hold immense, integrated rallies in South Africa, preach behind the Iron Curtain, in the former Soviet Union, in North Korea, to all the ends of the earth. "If I had not been a friend of the presidents," he argued, "in most of these places, they wouldn't have invited me to see them. The reason Yeltsin invited me was because he knew I knew the president…. And so it was a way of the Lord using presidents for me to reach other people for Christ."

Most important of all, the friendship opened the most tightly guarded door of all: the one to the Oval Office. "Very few people will tell the president about spiritual things and religious things or have prayer with him," Graham said, "and I felt that this was a way that God used me."

So at what price was he willing to preserve that opportunity? He knew pride was a sin; but what about sycophancy? If Jesus' message at its heart was about radicalizing love, how blind an eye did Graham have to turn to win the allies he felt he needed? He wasn't looking for money or power in his alliances with princes and politicians; but in using them to promote his message, did he have to water it down? Graham believed that by helping bring godly men to power and ministering to them in office, he could strengthen God's kingdom here on earth. Yet Satan, ever subtle, had tempted Jesus with temporal power, offered to tangle him so in the institutional business of the world that he would take his eyes off of heaven. "It had a tendency to creep into my own spiritual life," Graham admitted of his political engagement, "to use media coverage and the ability to pick up the phone and call the president."

How many people have that access and don't use it? How many use it, without it turning their heads? His fiercest critics testified to his honesty, sincerity, and the depth of his commitment to Christ. Yet some of his greatest fans would admit that his was a cautionary tale. If a man so obviously decent could still be sometimes thrown off balance during his political encounters, despite his best intentions, his lack of agenda, his North Star wife, and hard experience, if even he could not always resist the temptations of power and reconcile the Two Kingdoms, then you wonder about the wisdom of anyone else ever trying.

Graham's relationship with presidents was never the same after his painful passage through the Nixon years; and yet it would be wrong to say that the covenant was broken. He simply worked more quietly, lowered his expectations, and chose his friends more carefully. But he never left the White House orbit in part because the men who followed Nixon into the White House would not permit it. Both Ford and Carter, who had strong spiritual backgrounds and their own religious advisers, nonetheless sought out Graham for help with political problems. His meetings with Reagan—the president with whom he says he was closest of all—were almost entirely private, under the radar. The vow to be a spiritual adviser but not a political ally was renewed, and generally honored thereafter. As it happened, there were among his oldest friends and acquaintances several presidents in waiting, and he would be tested and tested again.

He remained far and away the most respected evangelical leader in the world; but at a time when other evangelical leaders crowded into the public arena, organizing voters, promoting candidates, elevating social issues as litmus tests, Graham was someplace else entirely, resolutely welcoming to all believers, all over the world. God, he said, did not favor one nation over another. The message of his final years, of suffering and of reconciliation, is a kind of witness all its own. A long and extraordinary journey approached its sharpest turn. "I don't have much longer," he told us, without fear or regret. But he had lived an enormous life and he was a curious man, who believed as sure as he believed anything that there's another adventure ahead, the greatest of all.

So in the time he had left he would take the time to look back, tell his story, and let his lessons live long after he was gone.


The Invocation

I didn't have any other motives throughout my life but to proclaim the gospel. I'm amazed myself that I was able to see all those men become president.

—Graham on his calling

SEPTEMBER 23, 1949

The sky was dark and spitting hailstones on Friday morning just before 11 a.m., when secretary Myrtle Bergheim from the White House press office passed by the pressroom. "The Boss says don't go away," she told the loitering reporters. "He might have a little something later."

A few minutes later, a dozen reporters gathered around the walnut desk of Charles Ross, Harry Truman's old friend and press secretary. "Close the doors," he said. "Nobody is leaving here until everybody has this statement." He handed out copies. The reporters started reading, whistled through their teeth, then bolted for the door and sprinted through the White House lobby, ripping the nose off a stuffed deer as they raced to the pressroom telephones. Two minutes later the bells on the tickers in newsrooms signaled a flash; by 11:08 the Associated Press bulletin was on the wires.

"We have evidence," the White House statement announced, "that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R."

Closing the books on an innocent age, TIME declared that "the news hit the nation with the jarring impact of a fear suddenly become fact…. For the first time, U.S. citizens would know, as much of the world had known since 1945, how it feels to live under the threat of sudden destruction—coming like a clap of thunder and a rattle of hail." Some in Congress raised the question of transferring government agencies out of Washington. Veterans dryly nudged each other: "Better get out your old uniform." Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson urged the newspapers not to overplay the story and fuel panic, guidance that the Hearst papers at least found easy to ignore. The New York Journal-American ran a half-page picture showing Manhattan engulfed in atomic "waves of death and havoc."


On Sale
Aug 14, 2007
Page Count
432 pages
Center Street

Nancy Gibbs

About the Author

Nancy Gibbs was named a senior editor of Time® in October 1991, chief political writer in 1996, and Editor-at-Large in 2002. After moving to the Nation section, Gibbs wrote more than 20 cover stories on the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns, and in 1998, helped lead Time‘s coverage of the impeachment drama.

Michael Duffy, most recently Time‘s Washington Bureau chief, has been at the center of the magazine’s coverage of politics and presidents for ten years. Duffy spent six years covering both the Bush and Clinton White House for Time and in 1995 won the Gerald R. Ford Award for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency.

Learn more about this author