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August 23
Column #1,669
The Impact of Billy Graham
By Mike McManus

Billy Graham came to prominence in 1949 while preaching a revival at the “Canvas Cathedral” in Los Angeles. A Texas radio personality who was a heavy drinker and gambler announced that he had been converted, as did a convicted felon and wiretapper.

Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst cabled editors with a terse instruction: “Puff Graham.” Scheduled for 3 weeks, the Crusade was extended to eight weeks. Some 350,000 heard him deliver one of 65 sermons, and 3,000 people came forward to make “decisions” for Christ.

The evangelist’s career took off. Many of his early Crusades were extended including one in London for 12 weeks and a New York City Crusade in Madison Square Garden for 16 weeks.

He spoke in person to 215 million people in 185 countries. Hundreds of millions more heard him on radio and TV broadcasts.

In 2006 Billy Graham ranked among Gallup’s list of the top 10 most admired Americans for a record 50th time and was the only religious figure in the top 10.

What kind of a man was he? What influence did he have?

David Aikman, a former TIME senior correspondent has written the definitive biography, “Billy Graham: His Life and Influence.” It is packed with vivid anecdotes and fascinating details of his relationships with U.S. presidents from Truman to George W. Bush.

Graham lobbied intensively to meet with Truman and asked if they could pray together. Truman quipped, “I don’t suppose it could do any harm.” Afterward, however, Graham made the mistake of telling the press.

“Truman was furious. He later denounced Billy as “one of those counterfeits,” reports Aikman. “The gaffe taught Billy a hard lesson: never tell the public about your private meetings with world leaders.”

In December, 1951, Graham wrote a letter to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower encouraging him to run for President: “Upon this decision could well rest the destiny of the Western World.” Ike said it was “the damnedest letter” he ever received.

After his election, Graham told Ike Americans would feel more comfortable if he was a churchgoer. Ike was baptized at National Presbyterian Church two weeks after his Inauguration.

Graham spoke at the 1963 Presidential Prayer Breakfast attended by President Kennedy, who invited him to the White House. Suffering from the flu, Graham declined.

During the second week of November, Graham felt “a terrible burden” that something tragic might happen if Kennedy went to Dallas. Not having Kennedy’s personal number, he called Sen. George Smathers, to ask him urge the President: “Don’t go to Texas,” Aikman reports. Smathers didn’t take the call.

Of all the Presidents, Graham was closest to LBJ, spending at least 20 nights at the White House. They enjoyed each other’s company. In the 1964 election, Billy received two million telegrams urging him to endorse Goldwater’s candidacy. Johnson called Graham and drawled, “Now Billy, you stay out of politics.” Fearing he’d be dropped “like a hot brick,” Graham remained silent.

Graham first met Nixon as a freshman senator in 1951. They played golf often over the years. After losing the 1960 election for President and his 1962 bid for governor of California, Graham assured him, “Dick, I believe you will have another chance at the presidency.”

When Nixon was criticized during the 1968 campaign for being “tricky,” Graham publicly asserted, “He has a great sense of moral integrity.” Nixon often called him late at night. Aikman asks, “Why did Graham, almost alone among America’s public figures, seem to be taken completely by surprise” by Watergate? “He allowed his affection to eclipse his character judgment.”

Graham was profoundly embarrassed when transcripts of Nixon’s coarse, profane comments were made public. Nixon complained about the media being controlled by Jewish journalists. Graham replied, “This stranglehold has got to be broken.”

He later apologized, saying “My remarks did not reflect my love for the Jewish people.”

Graham met Ronald Reagan during his 1950’s movie days, whom he described as “one of the most winsome men I have ever known.” Graham prayed at his Inauguration. Reagan later said “It was through Billy Graham that I found myself praying even more than on a daily basis.”

Ruth Graham and Barbara Bush were particularly close. Both could be witty at their husband’s expense and were fiercely independent, unafraid to speak their minds.

In 1985 Graham took a long walk with son George W. Bush, who later said the evangelist “planted a mustard seed in my soul…a beginning of a change” in which he recommitted “my heart to Jesus Christ.”

The future President was one of 3 million Graham led to commitments to Christ.

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