The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C. has a special exhibit running through October that showcases my father's relationship with all the U.S. Presidents since Harry Truman. It is fascinating. Even to me!
As you go through the exhibit you may begin to wonder how my father came to have these relationships. Did he seek them? Did he place himself at the right place at the right time? Did he have "connections"? And then you may ask, "What does it take to be a friend of a President?" Not just one President, but 12! What kind of man is he?
Beliefnet has asked me to give my "inside" perspective on this. I cannot give the relationship details... I don't have any. You will get far more details by going to the exhibit. What I can talk about is what kind of man has those relationships. (I wrote a book about him a few years ago, Legacy of Faith, Things I Learned from My Father that talks more about the man I know him to be.)
The reason I have few, if any, details is that my father kept those relationships and conversations in strictest confidence. That is why the Presidents trusted him. They knew what they said to him went into a "black hole". They felt safe with him. He has written some details in his memoir, Just As I Am, as he let time provide the privacy and perspective that granted some objectivity and grace. He held these relationships as a sacred trust given to him by God. These friendships were not for his own purposes but to walk with these fellow human beings humbly, prayerfully as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
My father is a very intelligent man and thinks strategically however, he knows he is not brilliant in the manner of some but he is a life-long learner and a voracious reader. It is sad that macular degeneration has taken away his ability to read in these last years. But he is a keen observer of things around him and insightful. He is never threatened to be around those more intelligent than he is but enjoys their views and always asks good questions, listening intently to answers.
With all that has surrounded him, the crowds he has attracted, the fame, the popularity, the attention, he has remained a genuinely humble man. What you see is what you get. He is the same in private as he is in public. He never assumes people know who he is or remember him. He once called a friend of my older sister. When this friend answered the phone he said, "This is Billy Graham. Do you remember me?" That was genuine. He sees himself as a farm boy from North Carolina. He is a simple man. If you were to walk into his bedroom at home to find a souvenir you would soon see that there is nothing of monetary value. Surrounding him are photographs of his family, my mother's portrait hangs over the fireplace across from his bed, and some Bibles as well as a few books. He has not accumulated "stuff". His favorite meal is a grilled hotdog and baked beans! He is a simple man.
Presidents deal with complicated issues and egos all day. Their schedules are jammed packed with people with agendas and those who seek to advance their own causes. My father considered himself a spiritual advisor and friend. He did not judge them or seek favors for himself or give unsolicited advice. He felt he could best serve them by limiting his advice to spiritual matters. Once over dinner President Johnson asked him a political question and my father started to answer but felt a kick under the table - my mother!
He admired and respected each President - that does not mean he agreed with them on everything. In private they may have discussed their differences and sensitive issues but it was the confidence of a friend he would never violate. I think the secret taping of conversations in the Nixon White House was a shock to my father. Those tapes revealed unguarded moments my father deeply regretted.
Their relationships involved fun, too. My father was a good golfer and enjoyed playing with each President as long as he was able. Mr. Johnson was a great raconteur and joke teller with a deep spiritual side. As a consequence he is the President with whom my father felt the closest. Perhaps their own country roots connected them. My father's father was a raconteur and respected business man in Charlotte so perhaps my father related to that in President Johnson. My father visited the White House more frequently under President Johnson than any other president.
These relationships did not begin when the men became President. Most of the Presidents my father knew long before they became President. He knew Mr. Nixon's mother who introduced the two when Mr. Nixon was a Congressman. He knew Mr. Reagan while an actor in Hollywood. He knew Mr. Ford as a Congressman. He was introduced to Mr. Kennedy as a Senator by a mutual friend. He knew Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton as governors of their states when he held meetings in there.
From what they have said and written the presidents have returned the respect and admiration. My father loved each one and felt their burdens and suffering. He agonized with them as they made tough decisions. He didn't judge them; he prayed with them and for them. He embraced their families, being available at any time for any one of them. President George H. W. Bush called my father to the White House the night before he sent troops into Iraq. He wanted my father's presence and prayers. President George W. Bush was deeply impacted in his spiritual journey by a conversation he had with my father while walking on the beach. (My father loved to walk the beach.) The Bush family called him to visit in Maine during the summers and enjoyed having him lead them in family devotions that often turned into a Q&A about spiritual matters.