When public figures are quoted as having made embarrassing statements, it is common for them to claim that the statements have been taken out of context. When Billy Graham was confronted last week with comments he had made about Jews during a 1972 conversation with Richard Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, he did not resort to this time-tested defense, but said simply, "Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made in an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon and H.R. Haldeman some 30 years ago. They do not reflect my views and I sincerely apologize for any offense caused by the remarks."

Interestingly, as unfortunate as the remarks were, looking at them in context is instructive. The larger context--Graham's close relationship with Nixon--is hardly flattering to the famed evangelist, who regularly extolled his old friend's spiritual depth and ethical integrity, qualities many others failed to perceive in Nixon, at the time or in retrospect. As a biographer of Billy Graham, I found his association with Nixon to be the most troubling and disappointing of his long and generally admirable career. And nearly 20 years after Watergate, one of Graham's close associates confided that, "for the life of me, I honestly believe that after all these years, Billy still has no idea of how badly Nixon snookered him."

The immediate context, a 90-minute conversation in the Oval Office after a speech by Nixon at a national gathering of religious leaders, shows Graham listening too compliantly to an extended Nixonian rant against liberal Jews whom he saw as trying to undercut his presidency and the welfare of the nation and as not appreciating the dangers of Communism, in Vietnam and elsewhere. It also shows the evangelist to be critical of what he regarded as an unpatriotically liberal news media and an increasingly corrosive popular culture, and to agree with Nixon's aggressive assertion that Jews played prominent roles in both spheres. It does not, in my reading of a full transcript of the conversation (I have not yet heard the complete tape itself), show the evangelist to be a secret anti-Semite, gloating over his ability to mask his true feelings toward Jews.

After talking for a few minutes about Nixon's speech that morning and suggesting that the president limit himself to major strategic addresses rather than "traipse around the country" during the coming campaign, Graham notes: "By the way, Hedley Donovan has invited me to have lunch with [the Time Magazine] editors," to which Haldeman replied, "You better take your Jewish beanie." Graham chuckled and said, "Is that right? I don't know any of them now." At that, Nixon talked for several minutes about Jewish domination of the media, asking rhetorically, "Now what does this mean? Does it mean that all the Jews are bad? No. But it does mean that most Jews are left-wing. Particularly the younger ones are like that, way out. They're radical. They're 'peace at any price' except where support for Israel is concerned. The best Jews are actually the Israeli Jews."

Graham agreed--"That's right"--likely expressing both his own conservative leanings and his longstanding support for Israel. (In 1960, after he comported himself with utmost courtesy and tact during a visit to Israel, Prime Minister Golda Meir presented him with a Bible inscribed, "To a great teacher in all the important matters to humanity and a true friend of Israel.")

Nixon continued, noting the support he had from Ms. Meir, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin, claiming they liked him because they knew he would not cave in to the Communists like a Democrat would. Then, claiming "it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism," he said, "It happens, though, that insofar as the media is concerned, the powerful media..." Graham, perhaps thinking the president's qualifier legitimated acceptance of what was nonetheless a negative and hurtful stereotype, took the bait. "They've got it!" he said, adding, "They're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff, and putting out everything," apparently referring to offensive popular culture offerings.

At this point there is a long deletion on the tape. When it picks back up, Graham says, "...and the media. They had the whole thing, you see. But he went about it wrong. But this stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going to go down the drain." The identity of "they," "whole thing," and "he" are not indicated. It is possible that what was deleted is quite damning of both the preacher and the president. It is also possible that those alleged to have a stranglehold are more closely specified than Jews or even liberal Jews.

Nixon and Graham then lamented the sorry state of popular culture, deploring the "filth" on TV and movies and the anti-Americanism in both the news and entertainment media. Nixon spoke at length about how important it was for him to be tough and to stand up to the Russians and the Chinese, segueing into a screed against university professors--"I think 90 percent of them are atheists or worse. They have no confidence in themselves; they have no faith in this country." Graham agreed: "They're undermining the country."