As details of President Richard Nixon’s misdeeds trickled out in the early 1970s, Billy Graham — the nation’s unofficial White House pastor — struggled to reconcile them with the president with whom he had become so close.
Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, also seemed to give him pass.
“Mistakes and blunders have been made,” the towering evangelist said, according to Marshall Frady’s 2006 biography of Graham. “Some of them involved moral and ethical questions. But at this point, if I have anything to say to the President, it will be in private.”
Then Nixon’s financial records were disclosed — his wealth, the multiple homes, the charitable contributions (or lack thereof).
“I was surprised,” Graham told an interviewer, “at the small amount he reported giving to charities in relation to his income.”
Then the Oval Office recordings — maniacal, foul, racist — came out. Frady described what they did to Graham:
When Graham at last finished tracking through those confidential exchanges between Nixon and his operatives, he became physically, retchingly sick — a nausea that clung in his vitals through the rest of that afternoon. Through the following days, according to his intimates and his family, he seemed lost in some blank abstraction, a heavy slowness hanging to his movements as if he had just suddenly entered for the first time into the earth’s dull and massy pull. His mother remembers that his very face seemed to dim — “There just wasn’t that usual glow in Billy’s face. It was like the light had gone out.”
Graham spent the rest of his life forgiving Nixon — even making excuses for his behavior.
The evangelist, wrote biographer Steven P. Miller, “did little to counter sentiments among Nixon defenders that the media” were to blame for Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.
Eight months after Nixon left the White House, Frady reports Graham got together with the disgraced ex-president to pray:
Graham passed two and a half hours with him at San Clemente in a candlelit dinner, the two of them retiring afterward to Nixon’s study to pray together for a while. And Graham reappeared from this reunion to declare that Nixon had actually become “deeply religious” since his resignation. “Most of our conversation was on religion. We talked a lot about the Bible. I think he has some regret he’d let his friends down. … He had no recriminations, no rancor. He’s suffered a lot, but religiously he has grown.”
While not condoning Nixon’s multiple misdeeds, vehement hatred and bizarre Oval Office ramblings, Graham blamed Nixon’s advisers, who the president was “just trying to protect,” he said. Graham went through the rest of his life saying anytime Nixon called, the ex-president always began by apologizing for his actions and cruel words.
Graham, in the ensuing years, told others he had finally gotten to the bottom of what happened.
It was all those darned sleeping pills.
“My conclusion,” he said, according to Frady, “is that it was just all those sleeping pills, they just let a demon-power come in and play over him.”
Graham’s last appearance with Nixon was when the ex-president was in a flag-draped casket. Graham presided over his funeral, not mentioning Watergate. He said Nixon, asked in his final days how he wanted to be remembered, answered, “I’d like to be remembered as one who made a difference.”
Nixon was shy, Graham said. Many people would never know his good deeds. His faith in God was unshakable, and it continued growing, the pastor said, until his death.
“For the person who has turned from sin and has received Christ as Lord and Saviour, death is not the end,” Graham said. “For the believer, there’s hope beyond the grave.”
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