Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time
Pastor in Chief from Time’s Nancy Gibbs and Michel Duffy has a perfect anecdotal opening:
You have to climb a steep and narrow road, past the moonshiners’ shacks and dense rhododendrons and through the iron gates to get to the house on the mountaintop that Ruth Graham built after her husband Billy became too famous to live anywhere else. By 1954, after she caught her children charging tourists a nickel to take a picture of their old house and noticed Billy crawling across the floor of his study to keep people outside from catching a glimpse of him, she knew it was time to move.
And as we read further we are promised so much. Gibbs and Duffy tell us that they visited their famous subject, Billy Graham, several times over thirteen months, and that the aging pastor who has been a fixture on the American political scene for over fifty years had agreed to talk to them about his unique relationships with the last 11 presidents. What a story!There are some lovely moments and the picture we get of Graham, as a lovely old man who has led a fascinating life but still retains his innocence, is finely drawn. We are told that the Presidential families and the Grahams could empathise with each other because they were all public figures:
For a preacher who had no church, and who spent his life preaching to football stadiums full of people he never saw again, the First Families gave Graham the rare chance to be a family pastor. He gave them a sanctuary; they gave him a congregation. He carried the families through times of loss–literal and political; several wanted him to be with them during their last nights in the White House. Richard Nixon collapsed in Graham’s arms at his mother’s funeral in 1967. Bill Clinton took him to sit at the bedside of a dying friend in 1989. Graham was the first person outside the family whom Nancy Reagan called when her husband died in 2004.
We are treated to intriguing little scenes such as his last conversation with Lady Bird Johnson:
Last month, Johnson’s daughters Lynda and Luci reached out to him as their mother was dying. Two days before she passed away, he called and talked to them, and since Lady Bird was awake and alert, they put the phone to her ear. The former First Lady and the former White House pastor chatted some and then shared a prayer together.
We are told he “thinks a lot of” Hillary Clinton. That Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with his own mortality and commissioned a “secret” actuarial report on the likelihood of surviving another term in office. But there are no real secrets revealed here although some startling hints are dangled:
Was it crossing a line when he invited presidential candidates to his crusades or sent along suggestions for their speeches at National Prayer Breakfasts? What about when he lobbied lawmakers on behalf of a poverty bill or an arms deal, or consulted with candidates on their campaign ads or their running mates? It was one thing to serve as Eisenhower’s or Johnson’s private pastor. But it was quite another to act as Nixon’s political partner, carrying private messages to foreign heads of state, advising on campaign strategy and assembling evangelical leaders for private White House briefings.
These fascinating questions are raised by the authors but we are not privy to any of Graham’s answers. His role in lobbying lawmakers on an arms deal certainly sounds like a “line” was crossed and an exploration of this would have made for a much more revealing feature. I suspect there were strict guidelines about what could and couldn’t be written about and maybe this is Gibbs and Duffy’s way of hinting at what they can’t write about until after Graham goes to meet his maker. But in the end they don’t come close to fulfilling the promise of their stated purpose:
At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we thought Graham’s 50-year courtship of – and courtship by – 11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people.
In the end they add absolutely nothing to this “public debate”. All we get is Graham hagiography. It’s a perfect example of a beautifully crafted feature, on a fascinating subject that fails dismally because it says nothing so well.