"Do you ever wish it was over?"

"Yes," he says quietly. He has said aloud a prayer, and now a meal is going to be served in his front yard, amid mountains blue as crockery. The sun is splashing on his sports clothes. God's messenger is wearing big, dark Hollywood-style glasses.

"Because, to be honest with you, there are too many times when I feel I'm preaching from an empty well. Really, I feel far more humble now than when I began 40 years ago. You take my upcoming Washington Crusade. The numbers don't really matter, do they? And what can you really hope to accomplish in eight days? If just one person changes his ways because of me, then maybe in God's sight I'll be a success. Forty years ago, I thought I was going to change the whole world. I don't think that anymore. You know, Jesus was here only three years with his public life. He went about from town to town. And then he said, 'I have finished the work the Father has given me to do.' "

The trouble with being a man of God is that the world doesn't want you to be as craven and puny in your heart as everybody else is on occasion. But if Peter could flatly deny Christ three times on the night He was bound over, and if the Apostle Paul could suffer hugely from his mysterious "thorn in the flesh," why shouldn't a one-time door-to-door Fuller brush salesman and Charlotte farm boy and star alumnus of the Florida Bible Institute named Billy Frank Graham be permitted to reveal, in the midst of revealing other things, his long struggles against pride and vanity, his occasional weakness for the rich and powerful and famous -- so long, that is, as he keeps seeking his Creator's forgiveness.

He is 67, his hair glinting tea-yellow in the light, his body lithe, his features fierce and hawklike, as if he were descended from some prehistoric Blue Ridge tribe. (In reality, he comes from Scotsmen down on the flatlands. Both his granddaddies fought for the Confederates in the War Between the States, and one of them, Ben Coffey, gave up a leg to a big black Yankee ball. As Ben was sitting there on a stump bleeding out, blinking at the fate God had handed him, a bullet came by and grazed his eye.)

His sideburns, gone shock-white, are wisping out from his temples. There is hair curling on the nape of his neck. The sleeves of his soft woolen sweater are shoved up past his elbows, showing loose folds of skin beneath his skinny upper arms. The backs of his hands are spotted in the way of old men. There are people sitting in Valdosta juke joints right now who look like this.

What he really looks like is Daniel Boone, in golf togs. He says he hasn't picked up his sticks and gone to the links in 10 years.

What seems lacking in him is the old raw explosive energy.

To encounter Billy Graham now, alone on his Carolina mountaintop, guarded by dogs and electric fences, is to come face to face with a seeming sadness, maybe even melancholy. Meeting the most famous preacher of the 20th century is not at all, one supposes, like coming into the presence of a Hindu holy man -- although gaining entry to this high-up Buncome County ashram can seem as difficult as entering the Kingdom itself. Many have tried to come to Billy Graham's mountain, few have succeeded. (T.W. Wilson, a beefy, friendly man who has known Graham practically all his life, meets you down below. T.W. has a gizmo in his ranch wagon to trigger the electric fences. "Billy's got to have gates and dogs," he says sadly. He, too, is a man of God -- also a federal marshal. He and Graham have known each other since they were 14. "He liked baseball, I liked football," he says, explaining everything.)

The latter-day sadness of Billy Graham, if that's what it really is, has to do, one suspects, with the weight of realizing that he's been wrong in his life, with the weight of knowing all he cannot change, even about himself. It has to do, Billy Graham might say, with the old problems of the human heart, lust and anger and greed, still unregenerate after all these years. "I doubt if anything much about any of us will change until Messiah comes," he says.

His wife has been ill with a rare disease (the Mayo Clinic has defined it as neuropathy), and, too, his own physical health is far less than what it was in the days when he could take on Madison Square Garden for 16 weeks running, a new overflowing crowd and a new overflowing Word, sweaty and inspired, coming to him almost every night. (This was 1957. Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, for one, was fairly smitten by this blond-locked 39-year-old drink of water lurching about on the podium with his Bible. And Ethel Waters, who got under conviction in that famous crusade, said, "God don't sponsor no flops." Before it was over, attendance had hit 2,357,400, with 61,148 "inquirers" coming forth to sign their decision cards for Christ. Even the pundits at Time Inc. were momentary believers.)

All these things might be a natural explanation for a complex weariness, what certain religious mystics have called acedia. And yet the detachment of Billy Graham appears deeper, more fundamental, than this. It is as if his legendary life, which has played itself out on a world stage for four decades, has in it now the character of regret -- not completely, but unmistakably.

Consider this brief homily on pride. He is asked whether, in God's providence (and even His sense of humor), it would be possible to think of pridefulness as the perfect flaw, exactly the right sting in the flesh, to give to someone who has made a career of standing like the Redeemer over bowed heads in jammed stadiums.

He laughs, and the laugh sounds a little like a cough.

"Pride, yes, pride, well, you know, I've been asked about this thing pride all my life. Well, I just don't know. Sometimes I think yes. Ruth and I were talking about this last night before we went to bed. I said, 'Darlin', I'm going to have a lot to answer for when I stand before God, and you know what I mean.' Now when the Apostle Paul became proud, as you well know, the Lord gave him his thorn in the flesh. What it was, exactly, we don't know. Well, I think the Lord has had His short way with me through the years by sending me -- what? Oh, various sicknesses or other problems that He knew would be way beyond me, so that I would keep before Him. I suppose there are people out there who will be reading this who are sure that I'm such a righteous, wonderful person, but I want them to know I'm a sinner saved by the grace of God. I know I've failed the Lord many times."

He says this in his odd, lilting, southern-cum-European rhythms, which almost sound medieval, as if he had just stepped from a castle on a heath. To hear Billy Graham speak, especially as the cadences begin to roll and swell, is always to feel a little hypnotized. One thinks, even more than of his Scottish lineage, of those raw-board canvas "tabernacles" stuck up on steel frames in sawdusty fields on yellow-bulbed Carolina nights 50 years ago -- with preachers inside them named Mordecai Ham, exhorting sinners to forsake their sinful ways or go straight to the fires.

Mordecai Ham isn't a fictitious name. Mordecai Ham, it turns out, is the man who made Billy Graham born-again, gave him the fever in a revival tent one night in September 1934 at the age of 16. Without Mordecai, the world wouldn't even know a Billy Graham. Now there is a Billy Graham Parkway in Charlotte; Mordecai Ham lies uncelebrated in his grave.

Last summer, Billy and T.W. Wilson slipped into Washington, Billy put on an elaborate disguise, and the two of them sat in the back of a tabernacle that had been pitched on the mall. "I just wanted to see what was going on," says a memory-haunted son of Mordecai.

His lower lip can still curl thin and white over his bottom teeth as he begins telling you about "satanic forces." He has never begun a crusade yet when Beelzebub himself doesn't do something to try to stop him. Beelzebub has many faces. Once, at McCormick Place in Chicago, Graham had to interrupt the singing and cry out, "There are about 300 Satan worshipers entering the auditorium. They say they're going to take over the platform. You can hear them coming now."

On they came. "I'm going to ask you Christian young people to surround these Satan worshipers," he called. "Love them. Pray for them. Sing to them."

Satan was repulsed.

His hand trembled just now as he reached for his coffee cup. Going over to the chocolate-colored phone on the veranda a moment ago, he tripped on the step.

If the point about Billy Graham is a fundamental decency and goodness, a moral and spiritual voice crying in a vulgar world, then it is almost affectionate and amusing to watch his other side pop out, as if this weaker, human half had a life all its own, righteous and intractable, not to be denied. Listen:

Regarding a flight he took to Burbank the other week (where his motion picture studios are), and how three stewardesses and the captain came forth to profess their belief: "I don't mean one of the cocaptains, but the captain."

Or, on attending Fulton Sheen's funeral some years ago: "They put me right up there with all those bishops and archbishops." (He says it as if he still can't believe his uncanny luck.)

Or, regarding his London Crusade in '54, which is the one that put him into the evangelistic firmament: "I preached for three months. We broke every record there was. We closed at White City, which drew more than 67,000. Well, I think it was 67,000, I'd have to go back and look at the clippings. And it was drizzling, too. But that was nothing compared to that same day at Wembley Stadium -- 120,000 people. Largest crowd in the history of Wembley. It's never been broken, it'll never be broken, because the governors won't allow that many in there again. When it was over, Winston Churchill asked to see me. He wanted to know how I did it. He said he couldn't fill Wembley Stadium in the rain, he said he doubted if Marilyn Monroe could fill it in the rain. By the way, I'm going back to Wembley. They're going to put it out by satellite to 2,000 cities throughout the world."

At the words, "2,000 cities throughout the world," he draws in the air with both hands a large, happy universe, as if even McDonald's hamburgers couldn't compete with these numbers.

Name-dropping? There are moments when it begins to sound like name-hurling, yet somehow it comes off more ingenuous than off-putting, the immodesty of a country boy. It is ecumenical, too, every stripe and creed are welcome: "Punch" Sulzberger, "Chick" Koop (C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general), "Alv" Chapman (newspaper magnate), Bill Marriott Jr. (never charges him a dime for a room), Harry Luce, Sid Richardson (oil tycoon), Arnold Palmer ("I played with Arnie in Latrobe, Pennsylvania"), Jack Nicklaus ("I knew his parents"), Gary Player ("He's stayed with me in my house, and I've been to his in South Africa"), Ronald Reagan ("I met him the year after he was married"). And on and on and on, including wonderful tidbits on that most famous Graham friendship of all, Richard Milhous Nixon.

"Yes, I met his parents in Whittier when I preached there in the '40s. They came to our meeting. They said, 'Our boy is a congressman in Washington. We hope you'll get to meet him.' Well, somewhat later I did meet him through a North Carolina congressman named Clyde Hoey. Now Clyde Hoey was like a Hollywood version of a southern senator. We were in the Senate Dining Room. I don't think I'd ever been in the Senate Dining Room before.

" 'There's young Nixon,' said Hoey. 'He's going to make something of himself, you watch.'

" 'I know his parents,' I said.

" 'Then I'll call him over,' said Hoey. So he came on over.

" 'Do you play golf?' Mr. Nixon asked me.

" 'Well, I hack at it,' I said.

" 'Well, then come on out,' he said.

"And that's how we ended up playing golf on the very day we met. It was either at Burning Tree or Congressional, I forget now."

Or, regarding his Washington Crusade (which he is clearly worried about and which began yesterday afternoon, with promise and fanfare and 21,000 people, at 4 o'clock at the Washington Convention Center): "I hear the president is to be out of town. But Cabinet members will be there, oh, yes, certainly. And senators, too."

And speaking of the president: "His mother-in-law introduced us in Chicago. I had dinner with him Friday night a week ago. I've been by there many nights. We're just more quiet about it now."

And yet . . . all this is but the made-of-clay part of a man who may go down as the most disturbing and powerful preacher in the history of the world save Jesus Christ Himself. For a long time Billy Graham resisted thinking of himself as even an evangelist. It evoked in his mind too many images of Elmer Gantry. Now he accepts the word humbly.

These days the virtuous half seems the far nobler side, as if, after a death-lock battle with the demon vanity, it was now, at last, in the process of coming out into the light, triumphant and glorious -- maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow.

Listen once more:

"I think too many times I've spoken from ignorance, not from wisdom." (You keep thinking he'll say something else, but he just lets it hang, eloquent for what it leaves unsaid.)

Or, regarding a residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., whose halls he practically used to haunt: "I try to remember when I go there now that I'm just a clergyman. I'm through with politics." It is uttered with a sad little shake of his head, conveying oceans.

Or: "Mine has been a pilgrimage, you know, and a pilgrimage implies journey. I've found there are a lot of things I'm not very expert in." (Once, in the amber of our national disgrace, "Nixon's preacher," as he was derisively known, tried to explain away Vietnam by comparing the American lives lost there with "the 57,000 killed on the highways last year.")

Or: "You know, St. Paul said, 'Pray without ceasing.' I believe prayer is in the subconscious. I'm praying all the time. I'm praying right now that I'm saying the right things to you. I still get down on my knees, yes, not all the time, of course."

Or: "The truth is, Watergate came as a shock and a surprise to me -- in my soul. It still does. I regret what happened, of course I do. But I'm a pastor, and so I still try to love him. What would you have me do?"

Or, on Reinhold Niebuhr, premier theologian of the 20th century, who once cut cocky Billy Graham up too thin to fry in public print, calling his gospel simplistic and blind, a menace more than a salvation, heaven on a discount card: "Look, I need some more Reinhold Niebuhrs in my life. I would say Reinhold Niebuhr was a great contributor to me. He helped me work through some of my problems."

Or, on Jerry Falwell, in surprisingly gentle tones: "Jerry came down here to see me in his plane. He said, 'Billy, you stay out of the Moral Majority. You keep doing what you're doing and I'll stay in what I'm doing.' Actually, I think he sincerely felt I was doing more for the kingdom of God with my own work. I think that's what he was trying to tell me."

What would one call such yin-and-yang tension, such apparent and admirable capacity for self-revision? Maybe you could call it the sanctifying of Billy Graham.

He is remarkably handsome in person, and he knows it. In his youth, before the Call, and even after it, he was known to have a discerning eye for females, a sort of Carolina-styled Hot Rod Lincoln who kept trying to get home every night before midnight because he had to get up at 3 a.m. to milk his daddy's cows. His father had 100 head -- Holsteins, Guernseys, Jerseys, and even now the old milker, fastest in the county, everybody says, can tell you the difference. "Been a long time since I've had a pail in my hands."

Billy's father, Frank Graham, was a deep Christian who felt he had committed "the unpardonable sin." He didn't know what that sin was, it was just a feeling. "I never even heard him use a slang word."

"I hear your father was a raconteur."

"I'm afraid I don't know the meaning of that word," he says artlessly.

Billy has one brother, Melvin Graham. Melvin used to farm but now dabbles in real estate around Charlotte. He, too, believes, but his life went another way. He is a more rural version of his brother, likable and easy, not exactly Billy Carter to Jimmy but maybe not all that far away either. "You can't hardly get him in a car," says his elder brother. "All he drives are pickups. Course his wife drives a Lincoln Continental." In 1975 Melvin underwent brain surgery. Just before they wheeled him into surgery, Billy leaned down over his face and whispered, "Melvin -- I just want you to know. I love you."

Billy Graham is married to Ruth Bell Graham. They met when they were both students at Wheaton College in Illinois. Ruth, a small, alive woman in a dress of plain fabric, designed the Graham house 30 years ago. She scoured the mountainsides for old log cabins, and what she and her husband have now created, on a large scale, looks like something out of pioneer America. "If I had to pay more than $50 for a log cabin, I felt I was rooked," says Ruth.

Their yard is bordered by lilacs and forsythia and split-rail fences. "I love forsythia," he says. "My mother had forsythia."

Maybe it should be noted here that there is cause for an insistence on privacy. When the family lived down the mountain, the tour buses came nonstop. Billy's converted would come up on the porch like locusts to bribe his children for pictures. (There are five Graham children, all grown now; the youngest, Ned, is in ministry school in Seattle.) There has long been a kind of protective wall around Billy Graham. Few reporters ever get to talk to him alone. His aides have been known to tape-record his interviews. Biographers of the family have found all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures on them from people in the Graham organization.

According to southern author Marshall Frady, who wrote a knock-dead unauthorized biography of Graham several years ago, the Florida Bible Institute was pitched at the edge of a Tampa golf course and was a "fundamentalist lyceum established in what resembled the vaguely tawdry government buildings of some minor tropical republic, beside a swamp river of hyacinths and palmettos." On weekends the student preachers worked Tampa street corners like characters out of a Flannery O'Connor story. Billy Graham's long battle with insomnia probably dates from this period: He'd come back to school so jacked up, he couldn't even eat.

If you want to know something basic about Billy Graham, study the clothes he once wore: chartreuse trousers and big clopping brogans and hideous bow ties, with a boy scout knife reportedly flopping from his belt. He was a Bible student outside Tampa then, still in his teens, and hadn't yet seen the world of the North.

"Oh, shoot," he says, "some of this clothing business has been exaggerated. Now when I sold Fuller brushes, that summer of 1936 before I went to the Florida Bible Institute, some of my associates had bow ties you could push a button in your pants and light the thing up. I never did."

As to his reputed sales prowess with Fuller brushes, he says, "Yeah, I guess I was pretty good, though not as good as they make me out. I used to like to hit the houses at night, when the husband was home." According to another biographer, Graham was stroked that summer with a "genuine, if very recent, conviction that a Fuller brush was a necessity of life." It isn't for nothing that the Direct Selling Association named him "Salesman of the Decade" in 1975. Think of what the man could have done with aluminum siding.

When you ask Billy Graham how he'd like to be remembered, he says, "As a preacher of the gospel. That I had opportunities to do other things. But that I never deviated."

A question wrapped up inside a quotation and a parable.

The quotation:

Some years ago Billy Graham told a reporter that the one moment in his life when he feels divinely gifted always comes at the end of a sermon, when he is asking people to come forward from their seats to make their commitments. "When I'm standing there, not saying a word . . . is when most of my strength leaves me," he said. "Something is going out of me."

The parable:

In 1954, when Billy Graham was ushered into the presence of Winston Churchill, he was struck, even more than by how short the great man was, by how old he seemed, how weary, how depleted. They met in a small room at No. 10 Downing. The cigar in Churchill's mouth was dead. The prime minister stood on the other side of a table, on which there were three of the day's newspapers. "I'm an old man without hope," he said, and then repeated it. He waved toward the table. "Look at these papers: rape, murder, robbery. Now, you tell me, young man: What is your hope?"

"My hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ," Billy Graham said, bringing forth his Bible.

He stayed far beyond his allotted few minutes. (When someone handed Churchill a note saying the Duke of Windsor had arrived and was outside, waiting for lunch, he swept the cigar out of his mouth and said with a loud gargle, "Let him wait some more.") For the rest of that day, and on into the night, Billy Graham could not get out of his head the picture of an old tired immortal man. It was a kind of emptiness he didn't understand.

The question:

If a man has spent 40 years allowing something to go out of him, a mystical effluence, so that others might find God, does there ever come a time when his spirit can no longer give, when there is not enough psychic energy left to propel him?