Why There Will Likely Never Be Another Pastor Like Billy Graham

Feb 21, 2018
Originally published on February 24, 2018 2:00 am
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Despite his trying to stay out of politics, U.S. presidents often sought the counsel of Billy Graham. He met with and gave spiritual advice to a dozen presidents from Truman to Obama. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Billy Graham had no trouble attracting droves of worshippers to his stadium sermons and evangelical rallies and he appeared before millions on TV and radio. But some of his highest-profile ministering was to an audience of one. Here's Graham, for example, with Lyndon Johnson as captured by LBJ's Oval Office taping system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON JOHNSON: Hello, Billy, how are you my friend?

BILLY GRAHAM: Well, God bless you. I was telling Bill (ph) that last night, I couldn't sleep. And I got on my knees and prayed for you that the Lord would just give you strength.

JOHNSON: I told my sweet wife last night - we've got mental telepathy. I said, if I didn't think I'd embarrass him, I'd say please, Lord, I need you more than I ever did in my life. I've got the Russians on one side of me. They're taking air - the Chinese are dropping bombs around, contaminating the atmosphere.

NAYLOR: Graham had a surprisingly close relationship with LBJ. But he wasn't the only one. The first president Graham met was Truman some 70 years ago, who dismissed him saying all he was interested in was getting his name in the paper. Graham prayed with Eisenhower as Ike deliberated sending troops to desegregate the Little Rock schools. He played golf with Kennedy and was so close to Richard Nixon, he spent the last night of Johnson's presidency and the first night of Nixon's at the White House. During the Watergate scandal, Nixon took a call from Graham after a televised speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: I had to tell Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign, which they wouldn't do voluntarily. And that was tough.

B. GRAHAM: Your sincerity, your humility, your asking for prayer - all of that had a tremendous impact.

NAYLOR: Graham was also caught on tape telling Nixon that Jews had a quote, "stranglehold," on the news media, a remark for which he later apologized to Jewish leaders. Graham was close with Republicans and Democrats alike, from Carter and Clinton to Reagan and Bush - both of them. In fact, Graham may have had his biggest influence on George W. Bush. Bush told Fox News he credits Graham for planting the seeds for his spiritual awakening during a visit the two men had in Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: Now, he helped change my life. He truly did. And I was a questioning person. I was drinking a lot. And religion was, you know, I put in the book, you know, I would listen but never hear. And Billy Graham helped me understand the redemptive power of a risen Lord.

NAYLOR: President Obama visited Graham at his North Carolina home. President Trump said he was privileged to get to know Graham over the past several years. And his son, Franklin, has been a big Trump booster. In his role as pastor to the presidents, University of Akron Professor John Green says no one has yet emerged with Billy Graham's influence.

JOHN GREEN: For many Americans, whether they agreed with him religiously or not, he became an example of an important spiritual leader. No one has quite filled those shoes.

NAYLOR: And it may be that no one pastor can. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.