Billy Graham, Pastor In Chief
You may know I'm a Billy Graham fan, even though he and I wouldn't agree much theologically. I wrote about him once before here.
So when a recent TIME magazine arrived with "The Political Confessions of Billy Graham" on the cover, I ate it up. The article coincides with a new book on Graham, The Preacher and the Presidents, which is now on my Amazon wish list.
At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we [meaning TIME] thought Graham's 50-year courtship of—and courtship by—11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people. We wondered what the world's most powerful men wanted from the world's most famous preacher. What worried them, and what calmed them? "Their personal lives—some of them—were difficult," he told us. "But I loved them all. I admired them all. I knew that they had burdens beyond anything I could ever know or understand."
And we wondered, too, how all that time in the White House changed Graham. What temptations did he face, what compromises did he have to make to preserve his access to the Oval Office without becoming a serial prisoner of the men he informally served? In our conversations over the course of 13 months, Graham talked candidly about the dangers of power and politics, about how it was a struggle for him for all those years and about what he learned. "I was aware of the risk at all times, political risk," he said. "Politics has always been ugly to me, and yet I accept that as a fact of life. The emphasis I tried to leave was love, not ... my own love for them but that they need to have love for the people who were opposed to them."
Graham also keep[s] a close eye on the progress of Hillary Clinton, whom he knows the best of all the candidates. "I keep up with her," he said of his old friend. "I think a lot of Hillary."
That feeling is mutual: Clinton first met him in person when she was First Lady of Arkansas, but they became close when she was First Lady of the United States. She needed some pastoral care of her own in 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and became the latest public figure to sense Graham's unique attraction to the occupants of the Oval Office. He was, she concluded, a political junkie himself. "He loved elections," she told us, "because he knew that you had to tell a story, you had to connect with people—all the things we talk about in politics." To the Presidents, Graham's fame and charisma made him a virtual peer: "I think there was a recognition there, and a comfort, with dealing with someone who was a public person," Clinton observed, "who had to put up with what's wonderful about being in the public eye and what's kind of a drag."
I find myself just feeling grateful that somehow our presidents were provided with a spiritual advisor who had an understanding of the pressures they were under. Who else would get it the way Graham does? This almost seems like heavenly provision to me, a spiritual force supporting the Oval Office, a continuity in the struggle to be good and do good. Isn't that cool?
My prayer today is that even though Graham himself has eased out of the spotlight, there will still be a spiritual continuity when we choose a new president in 2008.
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