• Prominent evangelical Christian and Southern Baptist minister Billy Graham has counseled presidents over the years, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
• Graham got along with some presidents more than others.
• The influential minister was particularly close with Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
For many, Billy Graham was truly “America’s Pastor.”
He was certainly one of the most influential American evangelical Christians of the 20th century. He died February 21, 2018 at the age of 99.
The Southern Baptist minister earned this renown thanks to his highly influential preaching. He held massive rallies, and broadcast his sermons using a variety of media, including television, radio, and, eventually, webcasts. His religious zeal and embrace of mass media allowed him to shoot to international prominence in the late 1940s.
Given Graham’s fame, it’s not surprising that appeared to be a regular presence in the White House over the years. But his circle of connections wasn’t limited to the United States. He met with heads of state and prominent individuals from around the world – even Queen Elizabeth II.
During his life, Graham broke boundaries, advocating for Civil Rights, befriending Martin Luther King Jr., and desegregating his “crusades.” He also stirred controversy. When taped conversations between Graham and President Richard Nixon were released in 2002 and 2009, it was revealed the minister had made anti-Semitic statements.
Throughout his career, however, Graham exerted influence on the White House and beyond.
Here’s a look at his history of rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential people in the world:
In 1950, 31-year-old Graham met with Harry Truman to talk about combatting communism in North Korea. But this first presidential encounter didn’t end well. Graham shared details of the conversation with the press, and Truman severed their fledgling relationship.
But Graham got his second chance with Dwight Eisenhower, whom he helped craft an inaugural prayer. During the 1957 Little Rock Crisis, when African American students were prevented from attending Little Rock Central High School, Graham reportedly urged the president to intervene. In later years, the preacher and the president prayed together before the latter’s death in 1968.
Graham didn’t just stick to American leaders. In 1955, he met Queen Elizabeth II — an event depicted on the Netflix show “The Crown.” He delivered a sermon for her in the royal family’s chapel on Easter Sunday. “She is unquestionably one of the best-informed people on world affairs I have ever met,” he later wrote in his book “Just As I Am.” In 2001, he was given an honorary knighthood.
During the 1960 presidential election, Graham opposed John F. Kennedy, and supported Richard Nixon. He reportedly attended a meeting of Protestant leaders in Switzerland, who were intent on stopping the politician from ascending to the White House, on account of his Roman Catholic faith. After Kennedy won, however, he invited Graham to various golf outings and meetings. Graham’s views toward ecumenism evolved overtime, and he ultimately met with Pope John Paul II in 1981.
In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson turned to Graham for guidance, and the two forged a close bond. “I almost used the White House as a hotel when Johnson was President,” Graham said, according to his biographer Marshall Frady. “He was always trying to keep me there.” Johnson would excuse himself for cursing in the minister’s presence, and ask him to come kneel at his bedside and pray for him. Graham stayed with Johnson during his last night in the White House, and remained through the first night of Nixon’s presidency.
Graham had known Nixon for years before he became president. When Nixon was elected, the minister led the president’s private worship sessions, and said he had one of the most “brilliant minds.” After Watergate broke, the preacher wrote a New York Times oped criticizing Nixon, but the two reconciled in later years. But when the Nixon tapes were declassified in 2002 and 2009, it was revealed that Graham had been recorded agreeing with many of Nixon’s anti-Semitic sentiments, and suggesting Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media. He apologized for the remarks, and asked for forgiveness in a meeting with American Jewish leaders, saying he was “wrong for not disagreeing with the president.”
Source: “A Day in the Life of Billy Graham: Living the Message,” NPR, “Billy Graham, God’s Ambassador: A Celebration of His Life and Ministry,” “Billy Graham: A Biography of America’s Greatest Evangelist,” AJC.com, Charlotte Observer
Of Ford, Graham said, “He was always to me a man of tremendous integrity,” according to the book “Ask Billy Graham.” The two played golf together, and met for a session of prayer after Ford’s inauguration. The book “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents” indicates that the president’s advisors wanted to distance him from the preacher due to his association with Nixon. Graham may have urged Ford to pardon Nixon.
Source: “Billy Graham: A Biography of America’s Greatest Evangelist,” “Ask Billy Graham: The World’s Best-Loved Preacher Answers Your Most Important Questions,” “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama“
Carter and Graham were both devout Southern Baptists, and Carter actually “idolized” Graham in his youth, according to David L. Holmes’ “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents.” But Graham skipped Carter’s first inauguration, and previously seemed to favor his rival Ford. While Carter’s communication’s director declared the president “wouldn’t turn the White House into a Billy Graham Bible class,” he did see the minister’s advice on Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.
Graham met Ronald Reagan at a charity benefit 1953, long before he would become president. According to W. Terry Whalin’s biography of Graham, the Hollywood actor convinced the minister that movies weren’t inherently sinful. As president, Reagan invited Graham to state dinners and private prayer sessions, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Honor.
Graham maintained a close relationship with George H.W. Bush. He and his wife Ruth frequently vacationed with the Bushes over the years. In the book “Billy Graham: A Tribute from Friends,” the senior Bush wrote that, during his inauguration, the preacher left the parade to spent time with the president’s ailing mother. He also stayed in the White House on the eve of the Gulf War.
Source: “Billy Graham: A Tribute from Friends“
Bill Clinton first encountered Graham as a 13-year-old, at one of his Little Rock crusades. He later got to know the minister as Governor of Arkansas. As president, he honored Graham and his wife Ruth after they were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Later, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Graham supported First Lady Hillary Clinton when she forgave her husband for the widely-publicized infidelity.
Source: TIME, “Ruth and Billy Graham: The Legacy of a Couple,” “The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House,” “God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush”
George W. Bush knew Graham through his parents. The two took walks together at the Bush family vacation house in Kennebunkport, Maine. “It was the beginning to a new walk where I would recommit my heart to Jesus Christ,” Bush wrote in his 1999 autobiography. But Graham never visited the younger Bush in the White House, likely partly because of his growing health issues.
When Barack Obama met Graham in 2010, he actually called upon the minister’s Montreat, NC home. TIME reported that the two men prayed for one another, and that Graham gave the president two Bibles, for him and First Lady Michelle Obama. Obama had previously called Graham to wish him a happy 91st birthday.
Graham made fewer public appearances in recent years, on account of his age on health. Graham’s son Franklin has allied himself with current president Donald Trump. The Washington Post reported the younger Graham once said “I believe it was God” when asked how Trump won the presidency. After the elder Graham died, Trump tweeted: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
- Ralph Freso / Stringer / Getty Images