Forty years ago, in the wake of the hard-fought 1968 presidential election, the nation faced what many assumed would be a turbulent transition. But it did not turn out that way. Whatever happened later, the country moved from what had been the one of the most divisive campaigns in our history, to a comparatively calm and remarkably orderly (considering the times) transfer of power.
This was due, in large part, to the combined and concerted efforts of two savvy politicians and a preacher.
President’s Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have long since passed to their rewards, but the preacher is still alive and kicking. His name is Billy Graham, and he was born 90 years ago this weekend on November 7, 1918, just four days before the guns fell silent ending what was then optimistically called the War to End All Wars.
In their book, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House,” Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy chronicle the evangelist’s journey from White House visitor, to presidential confidant. Beginning with a somewhat embarrassing Oval Office meeting with Harry Truman - one that brought out the president’s profane side - he went on to learn the ropes during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. By the time LBJ was in charge, Billy was a regular over-night guest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Presidents loved to pick his brain. Eisenhower once asked him, “How do I know if I’ll go to heaven?” Jack Kennedy inquired about the second coming of Christ and wondered, “Why doesn’t my church teach it.” When Graham indicated that the doctrine was written in Roman Catholic creeds, JFK complained, “They don’t tell us much about it, I’d like to know what you think.” Johnson wanted to know if he would see his parents in heaven.
It was well into the morning of Wednesday, November 6, 1968 before ABC projected Richard Nixon as the winner over Hubert Humphrey (and George Wallace). The president-elect watched the returns at New York’s Waldorf Hotel. He had invited Graham to spend the evening with him, but the evangelist declined, adding: “If you lose, I will be ready to come over and have prayer with you.”