Eleven Presidents to Choose From and Billy's Best Chum Was Nixon| 11/07/2007
The Preacher and the Presidents:
Billy Graham in the White House by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Center Street, 413 pp., $26.99. Publication date: August 2007.
If you set out to write the first book about Billy Graham that doesn't have God in it, this much-ballyhooed tome by two Time Magazine reporters would be just about as close as you could come. It's not really a biography. There have been dozens of those. Gibbs and Duffy take the eternal God-Caesar partnership and try to strip it of theology, positioning the evangelist as part power broker, part courtier, part apologist for the mighty, in an attempt to see if he had any influence on secular history. This framing of his life in the context of various presidential adminitrations—he's known every U.S. chief executive since Truman—gives the book the feel of high-minded gossip. We hear all about the little notes exchanged between Graham and the presidents, as he suggests public prayers and private Bible readings, as he pastors powerful men in times of weakness, as he learns to work the press to his own advantage as well as theirs, and as he eventually settles on a more or less consistent policy of favoring moderate Republican positions while technically remaining above the political fray. What we don't get is any kind of "gotcha" moment, when Graham doubts his own calling or the president doubts his own faith. The overall effect is soothing both to the republic and to deists everywhere.
The authors are clearly taken with the man. They start off by describing their ascent to the inner sanctum in Montreat, North Carolina, then assessing his life as "like no other" because he "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." We won't hear about any of those crusades, though, unless a president is present, and so they dodge what would seem to be the essential question here: How do you simultaneously serve Caesar and God?
They touch on the issue several times. During the Eisenhower years, the fight against Communism seems to become the essence of his gospel. Graham continues to publicly vouch for the integrity of Richard Nixon until very late in the Watergate crisis. He opposes Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson during the Monica Lewinsky affair by advocating forgiveness—the same position he takes privately in counseling sessions with Hillary Clinton. His one and only official visit to see President Truman results in a tawdry little series of self-promotions with the press corps that cause Truman to think of Graham forever after as a fraud. Then shortly after the election of John Kennedy, the roles are reversed: Kennedy advisor Theodore Sorensen is fairly cynical in the way he sets up a photo op with Graham that essentially makes "the Catholic issue" go away. A lot of Graham's interactions with the presidents seem to take place on golf courses, further cementing his image as a frustrated politician (there's some evidence that he briefly considered a run at the presidency in the fifties—his wife Ruth squelched the idea) who somehow ended up as a rock-star preacher instead.
But the moment we're waiting for—Billy Graham's own dark night of the soul—never materializes. You would think after Watergate he would have some serious doubts about his chosen path of minister to the powerful. By his own admission he was closer to Richard Nixon than to any other president, and yet he professes to be completely blindsided by what turns out to be the man's moral dodginess. The most he can admit is that he was never entirely certain about the sincerity of Nixon's faith. And even after that, he continues to write letters and speeches that are almost parodies of "Christian Nation" hyperbole, believing that each successive president is facing "the most difficult challenges in our history" but believing that each one "will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders in history," all while maintaining an understated but obvious belief in the United States as the leader of the Christian world. (He may have evangelized all over Africa and Latin America, but he has never become one of those southern-hemisphere World Council of Churches guys. In fact, his theological language has remained squarely in the 19th century. He uses the same words and phrases that were used by Dwight Moody or, for that matter, Lyman Beecher, last of the New England Congregationalists. Although a Southern Baptist himself, he never made much of a connection with the nation's most famous Southern Baptist president, Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton was so active in the Baptist church that as a boy he helped organize a Graham crusade in Arkansas, but Graham seems to identify more with the distaff Clinton, a Tillich-influenced Methodist.)
Billy Graham was never an intellectual, and in fact he made a conscious decision to ignore the whole course of 20th-century Biblical scholarship. He probably never once in his life quoted Karl Barth. The authors try to explain this decision (not very successfully) in terms of his need for a simple faith, but I don't really see how turning off your mind has anything to do with having a simple faith. At any rate, his embracing of a vanished old-fashioned Christendom, beginning very early in his ministry, is what made it possible, I think, for him to speak to so many people in so many countries without getting entangled by something as sticky as doctrinal ambiguity. That has an enormous appeal for the unlettered, and, as it turns out, it has an enormous appeal for politicians.
When you look through the photo section of the book, what you're struck by is the athletic vigor and public vitality of all the official photos. Billy Graham's life has been spent mostly among the well-heeled and the privileged, and of course there's nothing wrong with that—they need pastors, too. And given the hype surrounding this book, that's what he'll be remembered for. Graham knows better than most of us that that's not what God cares about, though. Even a Dwight Moody 19th-century theology knows that all things pass away, including the American republic. Would that the authors had shown the same understanding.