Tonight on 20/20, Charles Gibson devotes the hour to Billy Graham and his unique relationship with every American president since Harry Truman. Gibson had the opportunity to sit down with Graham and three of his friends – Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and bill Clinton in a remarkable roundtable discussion. I had a chance to interview Gibson about the show and his own thoughts on religion and politics.
Kuo: What impressed you or surprised you most about Billy Graham?
Charles Gibson: The thing that impressed me most is his ability to transcend political differences. That, be you liberal, be you conservative, Democrat, Republican, whatever your political persuasion, strong liberal like Johnson or a middle of the road Democrat like Clinton or a conservative like Reagan, all of them found commonality in their dealings with Graham.
And all of them found in Graham someone they could talk to, who was not judgmental, who was not there with any kind of artifice. Or as Clinton says, and I love the expression: “There’s no shine on Billy Graham.”
All of them found something in Graham that they could relate to. And in this day and age, when people are so divided politically, I find that really fascinating.
And I also find fascinating the fact that presidents have to deal with the great questions of life just the same way everybody else does. They may be dealing with political issues and with issues of state on a level that none of us do but, when it comes down to the basic issues of life, we’re all asking the same questions. And they found somebody to whom they could discuss those questions with comfort.
Kuo: Who would you trust more in the Oval Office, Billy Graham or Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani or take your pick.
Gibson: I think the point that we didn’t let President Carter make enough in the program, but I thought was important to make, Carter said, I look at Graham as an icon. And Graham has been tremendously influential on me, even though he was supporting Gerry Ford and probably was supporting Ronald Reagan in 1980.
But, Carter looks at him truly as a man of faith. And yes, he may pray republican, but essentially he very genuine in his sort of non-political, non-politically based faith.
But, Carter said, I very much believe in separation of church and state, and so I was not going to have prayer breakfast at the White House. I was not going to be calling on religious leaders to pray at the White House. I was going to go down to the 16th Street Baptist Church and that’s where religion was going to be. And it was not going to be in the Oval Office with any outside influences. I mean, I may have prayed often in the Oval Office, but I wasn’t going to bring somebody else in.
I think Ruth Graham was absolutely right to kick him under the table when they began talking [with Lyndon Johnson] about the vice presidency.
I think the separation of church and state is extraordinarily important in our heritage and in our beliefs, and so Graham does not belong in the Oval Office as a president
Kuo: So you think Graham shouldn’t be president?
Gibson: No, no. It’s a terrible idea. Somebody once said to me years and years and years ago, okay, you can pick anybody you want to be president of the United States. Anybody. Who’s up to the job? I mean, the job is so huge. Who do you pick? Anybody?
And I remember I had just met Father Hesburgh who was President at the time of Notre Dame. And I was a young kid and I was in a room with a bunch of other people. And I was just knocked out by the guy.
And so I just said Father Hesburgh. And then I thought, no, that’s a dreadful idea. You know, to think about somebody with that kind of religious background in the White House.
But, I was very impressed by the fact that Clinton, Carter, Bush and Bush all said it’s very difficult to be in that Oval Office unless you have a strong faith.
Kuo: In the show, you said part of Graham’s success was that he preached a broad and inclusive evangelicalism. What do you mean by that?
Gibson: I think his message is simple. It has always been simple and it’s been very consistent. I listened to sermons that he gave in the ‘50s, and I listened to sermons he gave in 2005 at The Last Crusade, if sermon is the proper word for what he does. And it’s always the same. It never varied.
The simplicity of the message–he always said, “I try to keep the message simple so that it could be accepted by a broad spectrum of people.” He has stayed off opining about the divisive social issues on which a lot of people weigh in now from a religious perspective.
Kuo: It’s very interesting that you say that his message was simple and straightforward and it was hard to take offense with, even though he took a very orthodox evangelical position about needing Jesus for eternal life.
Gibson: I never heard him say from a pulpit or from a stage, if you don’t accept Christ you’re a goner. It was always on the positive side of that.
I guess implicit in that is I don’t go to enough evangelical rallies. As much as I go to services anywhere, I go to Quaker meeting, which is hardly someplace where there’s anybody ranting at you.
But, he doesn’t dwell on the negative side of that. He just dwells–at least from what I’ve listened to–on the positive side of it.
Kuo: Senator Clinton, in talking about Graham and the hard time that she went through with her marriage said that he convinced her that it was “right for her and her family and her country.” Did that strike you in any way as an interesting or odd formulation?
Gibson: Yes. I did find it to be a strange thing. And I thought that’s strange that you would equate a deeply personal problem like that to the welfare of the nation.
At the end though, I just thought it was kind of a–just a sort of rhetorical thing and she wanted to–and wanted a third point and so she threw that in.
And I don’t think–I don’t attach much to it, to be honest with you, other than the fact that she’s running for president and that’s kind of the sort of thing you throw in.
Kuo: Did being with Billy Graham draw you closer to God?
Gibson: No. No. But, that’s a personal thing. When I have been with Graham, and I’ve interviewed him three or four times, and then this was probably a fifth time down in Charlotte, it’s always in a professional mode, you know. I’ve never had a personal talk with him.
And it’s very difficult to divorce the professional–what you’re doing there as a reporter or as a host of a morning program or as an anchor of a television–of a news show–it’s very difficult to divorce that. And so, I don’t look at it through that prism, if you will.
I am very struck by trying to figure out the personal magnetism of the fellow and what it is about him that appeals to people, etc., etc. And so, maybe from that standpoint there’s no question he is arresting.
When Mrs. Bush talks about the eyes, I know exactly what she means. When Mrs. Clinton talks about the sort of Old Testament Prophet kind of looks, I know what she’s referring to. But from a personal standpoint, no, because I’m always looking at him as a reporter when I’m with him.
Kuo: Sitting down with him, do you have any sense of regret from the man about politics, about faith?
Gibson: Yeah. When you read Graham’s writings, I think there is a little bit. I don’t mean to overdo this–a little bit of wistfulness about the amount of time that he spent–.
First of all, there’s a wistfulness about the amount of time he spent away from Mrs. Graham and away from North Carolina and away from his roots, I think.
But, he feels it took a toll on him, because I think the disillusionment that he felt with Nixon and the disappointments I think in some presidents that he hasn’t discussed.
You know, he’s so unremittingly positive and upbeat about the presidents. I’d be interested to know if the presidents haven’t in some respects disappointed him. I get some sense that perhaps they have a little bit.
And so, I think there’s a bit of a wistfulness in his writings about all that.