Billy Graham in the Oval Office

Image: Paul Schutzer / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images Sen. Frank Carlson (center) was key in forming the Presidential Prayer Breakfast under Eisenhower. Graham spoke at almost all of the first 15.
Image: Paul Schutzer / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
Sen. Frank Carlson (center) was key in forming the Presidential Prayer Breakfast under Eisenhower. Graham spoke at almost all of the first 15.

Journalist Nancy Gibbs recalls Graham’s relationship with six decades of American presidents.

In 2007, Time magazine veterans Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy coauthored The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House. The best-selling book chronicled Graham’s influence on American presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush.

On April 25, 2010, Graham hosted Barack Obama at the Graham family home in Montreat, North Carolina, making Obama the 12th chief executive to interact with Graham, something no other religious leader has done. The two of them prayed for each other during their 35-minute meeting, according to reports. (Donald Trump attended Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013.)

Graham’s relationships with different presidents varied widely. He skinny-dipped in the White House pool with Lyndon Johnson, played golf with John F. Kennedy, and counseled the Clintons after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But Graham acknowledged that his relationship with Richard Nixon, tainted by partisan politics, was the one most harmful to the evangelist’s gospel mission. Timothy C. Morgan, director of Wheaton College’s journalism program, interviewed Gibbs before Graham’s death.

As journalists, Michael Duffy and you had rare opportunities to interact one on one with Billy Graham. How would you describe him in personal terms?

One description I love is the writer who, looking at Billy Graham’s long arms and long legs, said that it looked as though God had designed him to be seen from a distance.

This figure could fill a stadium with 50,000 or 100,000 people, night after night after night. We imagined this huge public personality. What was most surprising to us the first day we went to Montreat was how completely disarming he was. We were struck by his humility, the gentleness, the quiet, confident grace.

He seemed perhaps the most unguarded man I’ve ever interviewed. He was not spinning, not looking to airbrush his history. The thing he was most worried about was that he might make a mistake or forget to give someone credit for something. The charisma was compelling—what an epic figure.

Any clues on how he got to be that way?

Of course, every president wanted to know that. Presidents very much want to get 50,000 people to come out and hear them. They were deeply curious how this one man was able to do that. As you might well expect, Graham’s answer was, “Well, I didn’t do it. God’s doing it.”

To which the presidents would say, “Well, okay. But there are a lot of preachers out there preaching the gospel who are not filling Yankee stadium night after night, so there must be something in particular about you.”

Graham had a great gift for keeping things simple. He was a very smart, thoughtful man. He never felt like he needed or wanted to stray from the core gospel message of God’s saving grace.

He made it possible for people to let down their own guard. We did go to his last crusade in New York. It was quite extraordinary watching 100,000 people listen to his preaching and just let go of whatever it was they had brought with them that day. He created a safe space, where you could let go of your pride, let go of your self-consciousness, let go of everything, and just focus on what he was saying.

He created that one on one and he created it one on 100,000.

When you were interviewing Graham for your book, it seemed like he crossed the boundary between a journalist and an interview subject. Did he pray with you?

He did pray with us. It was natural as breathing. That was absolutely just the most natural thing in the world for him. He is someone who made a deep impression on everyone he encountered. We were not looking to trick him. We were looking to see if he could help us understand what his experience was like in his interactions with every modern president, starting with Harry Truman.

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