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."

They continued in this vein, with Nixon complaining about having so many Jews in the White House press corps. After another long deletion, Graham noted that he thought he was even more conservative than Nixon, but that he had learned "to lean a little bit" when in the company of those he knew to be more liberal. In this context, he said, "I go and see friends of Mr. Rosenthal at The New York Times, and people of that sort. And, I don't mean all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me, because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. They don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country."

I shuddered, and still wince, at hearing and reading these words, but I think it quite likely that "how I really feel" refers to the liberal political and social convictions of the particular Jews in question, not to their status as Jews.

Nixon's statements are less amenable to benign interpretation. After Graham left, he said to Haldeman, "You know, it was good we got this point about the Jews across...The Jews are [an] irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards."

Watergate left Billy Graham chastened--though he seemed more troubled by Nixon's rank profanity than by his involvement in political espionage--and caused him to stand clear of the Religious Right political movement and to warn his fellow clergymen about the seductive dangers of access to power. Despite his long friendship with Ronald Reagan and George Bush, his subsequent involvement in politics never again approached that of the Nixon years. He also moderated a number of his political and social views over the decades that followed, calling for nuclear disarmament, encouraging evangelicals around the world to show greater concern for injustice and poverty, refusing to condemn all abortions, and giving prominent roles to minorities and women in his own ministry and in the huge international conferences his organization sponsored.

More pertinent to the controversy at hand, during the early 1980s he pressed key leaders of the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate and to relax restrictions on rabbinic training and language instruction in Hebrew. In 1991, he assured Jewish leaders in New York City that he would not be targeting Jews for conversion during a crusade there and, a few years later, criticized his fellow Southern Baptists for announcing a special campaign of evangelism aimed at Jews.

Nixon clearly "led the witness" in this 1972 interchange, and Graham's statements, regrettable and accepting of stereotypes as they were, should be seen in the light of his overall record. A major reason the statements have created such a stir is because they are virtually unique in the public record, the lone significant exception being a note in H.R. Haldeman's diary for the day of the conversation in question.

In five years of intensive research into Billy Graham's life and ministry, including extensive access to his archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, followed by an additional decade of close attention to matters pertaining to the evangelist, I never found a hint of such sentiments. It would not have been particularly surprising had there been such evidence, given that some evangelical and fundamentalist leaders, particularly in the generation preceding Graham's, were prone to accept, and sometimes voice, anti-Semitic stereotypes that were more common in the general culture than is the case today. But if they were there, I did not find them. For that reason, as well as for abundant evidence that Graham evinced a broader and more generous spirit as he aged and as he moved in ever-widening circles, I recommend that these statements, uttered in casual conversation on February 1, 1972, not be seen as revealing "the real Billy Graham," kept well hidden for the rest of his 83 years.

"Throughout my ministry," Graham said in his apology for his taped statements, "I have sought to build bridges between Jews and Christians. I will continue to strongly support all future efforts to advance understanding and mutual respect between our communities." Whatever they thought of his politics, prominent Jewish leaders have often agreed with Graham's self-description and have commended him for his generous spirit toward adherents of other religions. In 1971, the American Jewish Committee gave him its first National Interreligious Award, in recognition of his efforts to foster greater understanding among faiths.

Billy Graham was 53 years old when his conversation with Nixon and Haldeman took place. Should he have known better than to say the things he said? Of course. Should he have played the role of prophet rather than court chaplain and boldly spoken truth to power? Absolutely. Should we, in light of all we know about him, which is a great deal indeed, condemn him as a duplicitous hater? That privilege would seem to be reserved only for those completely confident the stone they are poised to throw will leave no stain in their own hand.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad