The Preacher and the Presidents is what the title advertises, a look into the Reverend Billy Graham’s relationships with every U.S. president since Truman. Time reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy show how the most famous English-speaking evangelist of the Twentieth Century helped our chief executives and, more troublingly, how he enabled them.
Graham was a friend and confidant to most of the presidents in the Post World War II Era. He enjoyed with them White House weekends, vacations, and trips to Camp David. At times, he even acted as a back-channel ambassador to break the ice with particularly nettlesome world leaders. President Clinton used Graham to get a message to Kim Il Sung, requesting that the North Korean strongman allow UN nuclear weapons inspectors into his country.
The reverend served as a presidential counselor in times of crisis, such as to Eisenhower during the integration of Southern schools, and to both Johnson and Nixon during the Vietnam War. Through these interactions, readers get some sense of the spiritual curiosity of our presidents. Eisenhower asked Graham, “How do I know if I’m going to heaven?” Johnson wondered whether he would ever see his parents again.
Gibbs and Duffy intend their work as a tribute to Graham, but it also offers inspiration for iconoclasts. The careful reader can’t help but feel that Graham’s ministry to presidents has been in some ways shallow, even self-serving. The book gives little indication that he had much of a positive impact on these leaders — as individuals or on their policies.
Truth be told, Graham comes off less as a strong spiritual guide than as someone who was blinded by his friendships with men of great power. He allowed himself to be used to promote the agendas of politicians aspiring to the presidency, as well as by those who had already climbed to the top the greasy pole.
This tendency is particularly evident in the many photo-ops that were arranged to show Graham in the company of candidates and presidents, often staged during his evangelistic crusades. The many photographs reproduced in this book suggest much about how the minister and the politicians used each other.
Graham’s emotional involvement with the presidents doesn’t seem to have allowed for moral evaluation or given him pause to consider the ethics of their policies. For all appearances, he largely supported them in whatever they wanted to do. This was the case with Johnson’s Vietnam policy, with Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, and even with Clinton’s position on abortion.
Johnson and Nixon especially — devout parishioners of the church of Realpolitik — understood the value of religious identification in advancing their careers and policies. Graham was no match for them, to the country’s detriment as well as his own.
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