‘All the Presidents’ Man’ explores influence of Billy Graham

Lauded as the “pastor to the presidents,” the late evangelist Billy Graham met with or gave counsel to every commander in chief from Harry Truman to Donald Trump.

The Rev. Billy Graham gives the invocation at the beginning of the inauguration ceremony for President Bill Clinton’s first term in 1993. Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

In a new report, “All the Presidents’ Man,” William Martin, the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow in Religion and Public Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and author of the acclaimed biography “A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” explores the popular religious leader’s relationships with each of these presidents.

The relationships spanned from 1950, when Graham was granted 30 minutes of Truman’s time in July of that year, to 2013, when Donald and Melania Trump sat alongside News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch at a table next to Graham as more than 800 people gathered in a hotel ballroom in Asheville, North Carolina, to celebrate the evangelist’s 95th birthday. Graham died a year ago this week at age 99.

“Billy Graham resisted the temptations of money and sex more successfully than some of his colleagues in public ministry, but his fascination with and access to political power revealed some of his vulnerabilities and posed a greater threat to his integrity,” Martin wrote. “By 1950, he had experienced notable popular acclaim, won respect in evangelical circles and shown that he would have no trouble financing his ministry. The key realm he had yet to penetrate was politics, and since much of his preaching featured political themes, he sought to ingratiate himself with political figures with an eagerness that seemed almost desperate.”

Graham was a friend to every president since Dwight Eisenhower, and the former general’s election marked the first in Graham’s remarkable series of significant relationships with presidents of the United States, Martin said. On several occasions over the next eight years, Eisenhower sought Graham’s counsel on the mounting racial tensions of that era, including a telephone conversation on Sept. 24, 1957, about whether to send federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to ensure the integration of Central High School. Graham said, “I think that is the only thing you can do.” That afternoon, troops from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and members of the National Guard rolled into Little Rock.

Graham also visited the White House before his foreign tours to let Eisenhower know where he was going and learn if he should watch for any special diplomatic opportunities or pitfalls, Martin said. After returning to the U.S., he would drop by the Oval Office to report on what he had seen and heard.

Over the next 60 years, Graham would participate in several inaugurations, preach at the funerals for Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and bring a healing message to a shocked nation when he spoke in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When Graham died on Feb. 21, a few months before what would have been his 100th birthday, he was lauded as the “pastor to the presidents.” His body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, a high honor shared with only 31 other people, eight of them presidents, including his longtime friend George H.W. Bush.

Martin pays special attention to Graham’s long friendship with Nixon and his great disappointment when he learned the truth about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. As Graham reflected on how Nixon and his close advisers had manipulated him for political gain, he said, “I felt like a sheep led to the slaughter.”

“Because he was basically a trustworthy man of deep integrity, Billy Graham found it difficult to believe that not all people seeking or holding high office shared those traits in similar measure, even when evidence of their faulty character was no secret,” Martin wrote.

“But I think he did learn,” Martin concluded. “We can never know for sure, but hypothetically, should he ever have been asked to support a candidate, male or female, whose amorality, bigotry, corruption, pathological narcissism, total disregard for truth and fundamental meanness were apparent to all with eyes to see and ears to hear, I choose to believe Billy Graham would have withheld his approval and suggest that other evangelicals follow his example, lest they incur an indelible stain.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.