Why is there surprise that Billy Graham was snookered by the Soviets?

On his recent trip to Moscow, the Reds laid out the red carpet: caviar at his meals and limousines at his disposal. The stroked Rev. Billy, who had come to talk of world peace, returned the favors. He selectively quoted St. Paul on the importance of obedience to authority, which may induce Soviet jailers to carve that inscription over the gates of their gulags. Then Graham, the caviar going to his head as though it were vodka, announced that Russia had a fair amount of religious freedom.

The duping of Graham in Moscow is nothing new. Take away his exhalings about Jesus and his fundamentalist forensics about sin and what is left is a man of weak analytic power eager to do the bidding of his political and financial betters.

Richard Nixon, after installing Graham as a regular at White House prayer services, brought the court chaplain along for vacations at Key Biscayne and San Clemente. In the 1972 campaign, when George McGovern warned an unlistening nation of Nixon's corruption, Graham, saying that the senator "is desperate," sprung to Nixon's defense like John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Lord: He is "a man with a deep religious commitment . . . I know the president as well as anyone outside his immediate family. I have known him since 1950, and I have great confidence in his personal honesty. I voted for him because I know what he's made of."

Graham has been a babe in numerous other political woods. Dwight Eisenhower regularly dined and golfed with him. Graham's proximity to power so turned his head that he once likened an Eisenhower foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount.

In 1960, President-elect Kennedy invited Graham to Palm Beach for a day of golf, and thereafter Graham sang hosannas to Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson needed only one dinner with Graham to have the awed Billy announce to the world that LBJ was "the best qualified man we've ever had in the White House." When on the premises, Graham was edified by Johnson's willingness to repent: The president "might have said hell or damn a couple of times, but he'd look at me right away and say, 'Pardon me, preacher.' "

When not deep in the pockets of presidents, Graham couldn't do enough to praise the power and glory of business leaders, from Henry Luce to Texas oilman Sid Richardson. Like the communists in Moscow the other day, the capitalists understood the art of stroking.

Graham's newfound regard for the Soviet system alarms the American right less because its most famous pastor continues to mouth simplicities than because the latest ones deviate so wildly from those of the past.

In the 1950s, he said of the communists that "the Devil is their God" and that Karl Marx was "a subtle, clever, degenerate materialist . . . who spewed this filthy, corrupt, ungodly, unholy doctrine of world socialism over the gullible people of a degenerate Europe." Communism, railed Billy, is "Satan's version of religion." To counter it, we need some "old-fashioned Americanism." And to defend it, naturally, "we must maintain the strongest military establishment on earth."

Of late, Graham, if not exactly recanting this earlier bombast, has made his way to the front of the tent to speak in the new tongues of nuclear disarmament. He is going to the campuses to cheer nuclear restraint and call for not merely SALT II but SALT Ten.

Parts of the antinuclear left have welcomed the well-meaning Graham to their ranks, despite his being an 11th-hour convert. But the conversion seems to have affected his heart more than his intellect. He was right to go to Moscow and exchange ideas and fellowship with Russian religious leaders. Any easing of the American phobia of things Russian, Marxist or Soviet is welcome. But Graham wasn't content with this modest contribution. He had to blab indiscriminately about religious freedom, obedience to the state and the caviar. It was as if he'd just come out of the Nixon White House, or the Sid Richardson boardroom, and couldn't wait to gush the praises of his latest icon. In Moscow, as everywhere else, the pattern of Graham's career was on display: talking too much and thinking too little.