Books

The Preacher and the Presidents by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

John Mark Eberhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The result is a hypnotic read about the turbulent nature of public life.


The Preacher and the Presidents

Publisher: Center Street
ISBN: 1599957345
Author: Michael Duffy
Price: $26.99
Display Artist: Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Length: 413
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-08
Amazon

Richard Nixon stole an election that didn't need stealing. Bill Clinton committed adultery and lied, lied, lied about it.

Billy Graham forgave them and urged us to do the same.

The Preacher and the Presidents, a book about Graham by Time writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, offers many insights into the life of the evangelist. It provides a fascinating document of Graham's relationship with every president since Truman. But it shines brightest when revealing how Graham treated the men widely regarded as two of the worst scofflaws ever elected to the nation's highest office.

In 1974 President Gerald Ford, in the wake of Nixon's resignation, pardoned his predecessor for his role in Watergate. "The reaction," Gibbs and Duffy write, "was blistering." That fall Nixon was hospitalized with phlebitis. Above his hospital, a private plane tracked across the sky trailing a banner that read, "Nixon -- God Loves You and So Do We." The "we" responsible for the gesture: Graham and his wife, Ruth.

Twenty-four years later, after Bill Clinton finally confessed his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, Graham "appeared on the Today show and said, `I forgive him.' ... Graham's remarks caused an uproar in the evangelical community. `I said one word -- "forgiveness,"' Graham said later. `I got all kinds of ugly letters about that.'"

But Billy Graham never has had much interest in blistering reactions or ugly letters. He has preached Christianity to millions. Newspapers across America have carried his column, in which he has answered thousands of questions about spirituality. While many of his peers have succumbed to greed, lust and the politics of division, Graham appears to have practiced everything he preached.

Yet this book is not Saint Billy. It discloses Graham's missteps. Since it's not a conventional biography of Graham (there have been several), it does so in the context of his links to presidents. The result is a hypnotic read about the turbulent nature of public life.

Graham's role as pastor to presidents did not start auspiciously. He was a young evangelist in the 1940s when his revivals drew the gazes of two media kingpins, William Randolph Hearst and Time founder Henry Luce. (The authors should be commended for divulging that Luce was instrumental in Graham's rise.) Favorable stories in Time and Hearst's newspapers led to Graham gaining his first audience with a president.

He bungled it. Truman had a peppery temper, and Graham set it ablaze in the aftermath of a productive meeting. "Like a fool," Graham recalled later, he emerged from the White House and gabbed to the press about the confab -- how he had ministered to Truman, discussed with him the looming crisis in Korea, floated the idea of a national day of prayer.

"Nobody had briefed me that you don't quote the president," Graham said. Many years later he and Harry buried the hatchet, but Graham would have little access to the Truman White House.

He fared better with John F. Kennedy, though they were never close. Nor were Graham and Jimmy Carter chummy: "Carter alone among the presidents studied here, taught the Bible throughout his life, wrote books of religious meditations, and needed no help with Scripture or its challenges."

The others, from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush, did need Graham and rarely hesitated to call on him. Rare, too, has been the occasion when Graham's affection for the presidents impaired his judgment. Gibbs and Duffy do recount Graham's failure to upbraid Nixon for anti-Semitic remarks. They also chronicle Graham's regret that his zealous anti-communism distracted him from his true calling: "preaching the gospel."

A quibble: I wish the opening chapter on Graham's background had been longer. At 352 pages not counting notes and index, the book could have given more context instead of presuming everyone has read a Graham biography.

On Thursday, Graham was released from a North Carolina hospital where he'd been recuperating from intestinal bleeding. But his wife died earlier this year, and Graham is 88. As it must for all of us, his time will come.

When it does, one hopes America will remember his humility and grace. In an era of hubris and blame, we would do well to look inward, then decide if we have any call to cast stones.

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