Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



The Preacher and the Presidents by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy








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Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy cut Billy Graham a lot of slack in their new book, The Preacher and the Presidents. The authors, both TIME writers, may have transferred the same institution sympathy that their company has had for Graham since the days of Henry Luce. In this book, Gibbs and Duffy present many of the dimensions of the relationship that Graham developed with each United States President from Truman through George W. Bush. In each case, it appears from this book that Graham’s intention was to pastor to these powerful individuals, to provide them the spiritual nurturing they needed. In some cases, there were Presidents who exploited Graham for political purposes, and in others, that Graham offered political support and supporters to those individuals whose policies he supported. Along the way, Graham admits to making many mistakes in his dealings with the White House residents. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 19, “Summons for the Silent Majority,” pp. 183-185:

I was aware of the risk at all times, political risk.

—Graham on proximity to power

Nixon needed Graham's help in a much more public way in the spring of 1970. It had been a season of random violence and political fury in the streets. In March the radical Weathermen plotted to blow up an officers' dance at Fort Dix in what the conspirators intended to be "the most horrific hit that the United States government had ever suffered on its territory." Instead three people died when a brownstone in New York's West Village exploded; the Weathermen's bombmaking factory was in the basement.

Campuses everywhere were steaming with protests against the war. On Apri129, Nixon called Graham at home in Montreat at one in the morning on "a personal matter." He was going to be making a major speech the next night, he said, though he didn't get into specifics. "All I knew was that it would be a tough speech," Graham said, "and aimed at saving American lives."

The next night Nixon went on television to announce that the United States had invaded Cambodia—a neutral country he had been secretly bombing for a year—to root out North Vietnamese camps and break enemy supply lines. Rather than portray this as a regrettable but necessary move to protect U.S. troops, he was all righteous fervor. "If, when the chips are down," he said, "the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and institutions throughout the world. It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight."

Such a sudden and defiant escalation of a war people had hoped would be over by now triggered a revolt among students, inspiring Nixon the next day to denounce "these bums blowing up campuses." But it was not just the radicals in a furor; kids who had never picked up a rock in their lives were now inflamed, and many professors and parents as well. When National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University, virtually the entire system of higher education shuddered and stopped. Colleges from Yale to Berkeley shut down in a massive student strike; Democrats and editorial pages denounced Nixon's move; there was dissent within his cabinet; 250 State Department employees, including fifty Foreign Service Officers, signed a statement of protest; and some Peace Corps employees seized their building and flew a Viet Cong flag from it. The stock market had its worst week in forty years. "The very fabric of government," Henry Kissinger wrote, "was falling apart."

At that moment Nixon needed both Graham's private reassurance and public support; in the days to come he would call again. "He's very disturbed," Haldeman said of Nixon after the campus shootings. "Afraid his decision set it off . . . talked a lot about how we can get through to the students, turn this stuff off. . . . He's out there on a tough limb, and knows it.”

Nixon went on television on the night of May 8 to defend the invasion as furthering the students' goal of peace. Afterward he was so troubled he couldn't sleep; nearly one hundred thousand protesters had converged on the White House that day, and there was talk of placing machine guns on the White House lawn. There were demonstrations all over the capital that night; students kept vigil at the Lincoln Memorial. Nixon called his daughter Tricia, called Haldeman seven times, Kissinger eight times. He called William Safire, Bebe Rebozo, Pat Moynihan, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller . . . and Billy Graham. Kissinger thought the president was on the edge of a breakdown. At dawn Nixon set off with a clutch of Secret Service agents to the Lincoln Memorial and talked to the surprised and sleepy students there. "I know you want to get the war over," he said. "Sure you came here to demonstrate and shout your slogans on the ellipse. That's all right. Just keep it peaceful. Have a good time in Washington, and don't go away bitter."

Even before the uproar his team had been talking about his loss of momentum and leadership in the public eye. The image makers like Klein, Ron Ziegler, and Ehrlichman all saw a serious problem; but it was all a matter of theater: "They argue for more public presidential presentation, press conferences, speeches, review trips," Haldeman recorded in his diary, "demonstrate that P [the president] cares and is interested and will try to do something. Whole thrust is on need for appearance, not substance."

Nixon told his staff that he wanted to try an idea Graham had for a big pro-America rally, maybe for the Fourth of July. He thought they were all still too timid about mobilizing their Silent Majority. Nixon felt that "he should probably go out into country and draw crowds and show popular enthusiasm." It was easier to believe that the problem was one of slanted press coverage rather than broad public repudiation; he and Gra­ham talked about this by phone, and afterward Nixon sent Haldeman a memo. Graham, he said, had observed how "CBS in its coverage of the [pro-administration] construction workers march gave approximately a minute of time to the 150,000 who demonstrated in New York and two to three minutes to the 1,000 left wing lawyers who came to Washington. The purpose of this memo is simply to be sure that you jog our watchdog group to see whether they needle CBS a bit for unbalanced coverage."

Above all Nixon had to do something about the roiling campuses—so it was irresistible when an opportunity presented itself. Graham was holding a crusade in the football stadium at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and invited Nixon not just to attend, as Johnson had in Houston in 1965, but to speak. It would be a chance for him to appear on a campus before tens of thousands of students—but friendly ones, in a friendly setting, in his first appearance outside the White House since the invasion. In fact it turned out to be the largest public meeting in the history of the state.

And so Nixon and his entourage flew down to Tennessee, and the pres­ident joined Graham on the platform. "I'm for change," Graham said in introducing Nixon to the congregation of eighty-eight thousand, "but the Bible teaches us to obey authority."

"Perhaps," Nixon declared, "America needs to know something about America's youth, and perhaps America's youth needs to know something about America." Dialing back now his remarks about student "bums," he waxed conciliatory. "I am proud to say that the great majority of America's young people do not approve of violence. The great majority do approve, as I do, of dissent."


Billy Graham is a fine man, and The Preacher and the Presidents allows his goodness to come across on these pages.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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