Graham certainly spent his share of time on TV, being interviewed by the likes of Larry King, David Frost, Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson. He founded the magazine Christianity Today and, for years, wrote a syndicated newspaper column and hosted a widely distributed radio show.
Graham knew how to get exposure.
But the extent of Graham's media savvy was most apparent in his disarming style. His arrival in New York 61 years ago was such big news that the Times printed the text of his opening-night sermon, in full. Graham might not have known of the Times's publication plan, but he surely knew that whatever he chose to emphasize would be reported in the press.
And this is what he chose to emphasize: “All the way through the Bible, God is saying, 'I love you. I love you. I love you.'”
God says other things in the Bible too, of course, but Graham seemed to grasp the idea that he would be better positioned to talk about those other things once he had established the love thing.
“How do you feel,” King asked Graham in 2005, “when you see a lot of these strong Christian leaders go on television and then say, 'You are condemned. You will live in hell if you do not accept Jesus Christ.' And they are forceful and judgmental.”
“Well,” Graham replied, “they have a right to say that, and they are true to a certain extent. But I don't — that's not my calling. My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that he does forgive us. That's what the cross is all about and what the resurrection is all about. That's the gospel. And you can get off on all kinds of different side trails.”
Watching another of Graham's interviews with King, I was reminded of Omarosa Manigault Newman's recent characterization of Vice President Pence as “extreme.”
“I love Jesus,” Manigault Newman said on “Celebrity Big Brother,” “but he thinks Jesus tells him to say things.”
Manigault Newman's characterization of Pence's beliefs may or may not be accurate, but she tapped into a popular sentiment about people who seem to suggest they have a hotline to heaven. Graham made clear to King in 1988 that he claimed no such special access.
“I’ve seen people on your show who feel that somebody is channeling through them and so forth,” he said.
“Do you feel the presence?” King asked.
“I sense the presence of God, but I do not hear any voices,” Graham said. “I do not have any outward experiences like that.”
Graham was adept at answering loaded questions.
“Is this still a Christian country?” Frost asked him in 1997.
“No, we’re not a Christian country,” Graham began. Where some other evangelical leaders might have proceeded to stir up controversy with a soliloquy about cultural erosion, Graham instead added this: “We’ve never been a Christian country. We’re a secular country, by our Constitution, in which Christians live and in which many Christians have a voice.”
In the same interview, Graham said, “I think Islam is misunderstood, too, because Muhammad had a great respect for Jesus, and he called Jesus the greatest of the prophets except for himself. And I think that we’re closer to Islam than we really think we are.”
Graham's fellow Christians sometimes accused him of soft-pedaling his faith in interviews, but his love-first approach helped him capture and keep the media spotlight for decades, without becoming as polarizing as many famous religious figures.