The tributes to the Rev. Billy Graham, “America’s pastor,” prove our penchant to subordinate the unseemly in pursuit of caricature and heroic myth-making. In his case, there’s the short shrift given to an astonishingly offensive 90 minutes in the Oval Office that he never seemed willing to recall.
It won’t be on many minds as, in a rare honor for a private citizen, he will lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday and Thursday. But it should be, given his occasional but embarrassing involvement with partisan politics (not to mention the far more overt involvement of his son, Rev. Franklin Graham, most notably as the arguably highest-profile evangelical supporter of President Donald Trump).
An obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times underscored how the local Wheaton College graduate was “scrupulously honest about his personal and financial dealings” and how a “long tenure in the national pulpit” was unharmed by “any hint” of the sort of scandals that brought down the likes of televangelists Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker.
Well, not quite. As fleeting references there and elsewhere hinted, there was a nasty and anti-Semitic 1972 Oval Office dialogue between Graham and President Richard Nixon. Among the more than 3,000 hours of secret recordings, it easily makes any Top 100 List (the competition is fierce). I recall it well since It was my story. In 2002 I’d been tipped off to the tape by a source at the National Archives and Records Administration prior to a large-scale release of previously unheard recordings. I proceeded with the inherently time-consuming transcription of the conversation for the Chicago Tribune.
Consider our being taken aback by the dribs and drabs that come out of the Trump White House about Donald Trump’s rhetorical outrages and crudeness. Nixon probably has him topped, at least given the unmistakable electronic proof of what Nixon said.
The chat followed a Feb. 10, 1972 prayer breakfast the two men had attended. The Vietnam War was raging and Nixon was often very focused on his re-election campaign.
I listened as he made a string of bigoted remarks about Jews and what he deemed their undue influence. Graham responded, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.” That line was picked up by media at the time and included in some of remembrances following his demise. Most of the conversation was not.
“You believe that?” Nixon said, seeming to be pleasantly surprised with affirmation of an anti-Semitic streak that courses through many Nixon Oval Office conversations.
“Yes, sir,” Graham said to Nixon (and H.R Haldeman, the Nixon top aide later imprisoned for his role in the Watergate cover-up, who is apparently in the room for most, even all the conversation).
“Oh, boy,” replied Nixon. “So do I. I can’t ever say that but I believe it.”
“No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something,” Graham replied.
Graham referenced friends of his own in the press who were Jewish and how they “swarm around me and are friendly to me.” But, he added, “They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”
It got worse. Nixon brought up a topic of which he said “we can’t talk about it publicly”: the alleged influence of Jews in Hollywood and the press. He references an executive with the 1968-1973 NBC hit show, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in,” as once informing him that 11 of its 12 writers were Jewish. (Nixon surfaced on an episode during the 1968 presidential campaign as part of his attempt at reinvention, famously uttering, “Sock-it-to-me!” a well-known catchphrase of actress Judy Carne, a show regular.)
“That right?” said Graham. Nixon seamlessly continued by asserting that Life magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were among those “totally dominated by the Jews.” And, he said, the famous broadcast network anchors Howard K. Smith, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite were “front men who may not be of that persuasion,” but that their writers were “95 percent Jewish.”
Nixon, being Nixon, qualified his broadside by declaring that this didn’t mean “that all the Jews are bad.” But, nevertheless, most were of leftish persuasion and desired “peace at any price except where support for Israel is concerned. The best Jews are actually the Israeli Jews.”
“That’s right,” agreed Graham, who would further aid and abet his host’s declaration that a “powerful bloc” of media Jews confronted Nixon “And they’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” Graham said, thought it’s a bit unclear to what he alluded.
When I broke the story in 2002, Graham said through a spokesman that he could not respond regarding the transcript because he didn’t remember it. He would later issue a written apology and meet with Jewish leaders. But he forever maintained that he could not recall the conversation.
“What Graham said that day is inexcusable. Did it ever occur to him that he should have countered the president?” Martin Marty, a religious historian at the University of Chicago, has told me. Marty noted the distinction some conservative evangelicals and Pentecostals have made between supporting Israel but not American Jews.
Upon Graham’s passing, I showed my original piece to Richard Rosengarten, a religion and literature professor at the University of Chicago and former dean of its divinity school.
“I think Marty got it exactly right (and cut him no slack),” he emails. “It’s the more notable as Marty has exerted himself throughout his career as a commentator to avoid statements that could be construed as partisan – and certainly to work very hard not to censure someone. This is an honorable exception to the rule. My guess is that it reflects Marty’s sense that, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Christians had a mandate to recognize anti-Semitism when they saw/heard it, and call it what it is. “
Jeffrey Seglin, a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program notes that, “We have to take the full measure of anyone to get a complete sense of who they are and the life they lived, whether it involves that person’s expressed feelings about Jews and the media or God’s role in the cause of AIDS.”
It means recalling all aspects of Graham’s remarkably full life, including views expressed during his legendary counseling of American presidents. For sure, that may get in the way of of myth-making as we concede the complexity of so many lives.
William Martin, a Graham biographer and religion expert at Rice University, pointed me to a piece he’d done for Christianity Today after my disclosures. In part, he noted how Graham was 53 year-old at the time.
“Should he have known better than to say the things he said? Of course,” Martin wrote in 2002. “Should he have played the role of prophet rather than court chaplain and boldly spoken truth to power? Absolutely. Should we, in light of all we know about him, which is a great deal indeed, condemn him as a duplicitous hater? That privilege would seem to be reserved only for those completely confident the stone they are poised to throw will leave no stain in their own hand.”
All these many years later, he says, “I don’t think I have anything new to add.” The tape is, after all, the tape.