David Stokes

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.”

He did not lose, but he called Billy anyway and asked him to come over and pray before he went downstairs to meet with the press and talk to the nation.  Entering the suite on the hotel’s thirty-fifth floor, the preacher met the president-elect, his wife Pat, and their daughters.  They all joined hands as Graham prayed.  The preacher specifically offered thanks for the vital spiritual influence of Nixon’s mother, who had passed away a little more than a year before.  Hannah Nixon was the first to tell her son about Billy Graham after hearing him speak in Los Angeles in 1949.  The evangelist had conducted her funeral.

The 1968 morning-after scene was very different from the one six years earlier when, after losing the race for governor in California, Nixon gave what he called his “last press conference.”  There is no evidence that there was a hotel-suite prayer meeting that morning.

Soon after Graham’s prayer, Richard M. Nixon faced the nation for the first time as president-elect. Most memorable, and appropriate for the moment, was his reference to a sign he saw “at the end of a long day of whistle-stopping” in diminutive Deshler, Ohio.  It said: “Bring us together.”  He then indicated that this would be the great goal of his administration.

I am sure some reading this now may find such words to be cynical, ironic, - even sappy.  But they were words “fitly spoken” and uttered in good faith.  The American political reflex is to run from rancor to graciousness after a fierce battle – like weary boxers managing the arm-strength to embrace each other following the final bell. 

This is something the country needs.  Sure, it all eventually gives way to our default position of partisanship, but such “warm fuzzy” moments should be seized, whether “our” candidate won or lost.  They are good for us – and for our children.

Not to mention our blood pressure.

I find myself sad that President-Elect Obama’s grandmother did not live to see him win.  I also enjoy the “cute” moments as the Obama family begins to find a place in all of our hearts and prayers.  I even like the whole “new puppy” thing.  And I know that the young African-Americans in my congregation have a new reference point for achievement and success.  I know also that their parents and grandparents are very proud that we have come so far as a nation.  A dream has come true. This is historic and important.  Let us all stop and smell the roses – it is definitely quite something to behold.  I really like this stuff. 

I am a conservative, just not a grinch about it.

I am sure there will be issues and policies that prompt me to speak out – but that does not take anything away from how fascinating this political moment is.  Mr. Obama has my support – but more importantly – he has my prayers.  I may be part of an eventual loyal opposition, but the accent will be on loyal.

But back to 1968, interestingly - though Billy Graham was a friend of the president-elect forty years ago, the man who was still president did not seem to mind sharing the preacher.  In fact, Lyndon Johnson invited Billy Graham to spend his last weekend in the White House with him January 18-19, 1969.  One evening he watched a movie with LBJ and his family, The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn.  When the president dozed off mid-film, Billy quietly went to the projectionist and asked him to keep the reels around, thinking Nixon would like it.

The president and the evangelist went to church together on Sunday, January 19th.  The next day, during the inauguration of the 37th president, Billy Graham delivered the invocation.  Then, following Nixon’s address – as the Johnson’s quietly left the stage – the now ex-president’s daughters kissed the preacher.  And Billy went back to the White House and spent the night with the Nixons on January 20th – completing a sleepover hat trick.

The following Sunday, President Nixon began a custom of holding worship services in the White House.  The first clergyman to officiate was, of course, Billy Graham.

It seems to me that Billy Graham found the balance.  He managed to stay faithful to the simple gospel message, even when surrounded by the seductive trappings of power.  The man of God found a way to connect with politicians in a way that earned their respect and opened doors for personal ministry. 

Maybe, just maybe, this is something Christian leaders should reflect on right now.  The so-called Religious Right is a thing of the past.  It was once a well-defined movement.  Now it appears to be dissipating like a weakening storm somewhere over America’s heartland. 

Some are sad about this.  Some are very discouraged.  I am not.  My views have not changed.  I am ardently pro-life, fiercely pro-American, and passionate about limited government.  And I will stand for what I believe and work for causes I consider worthwhile and just. 

I have never been comfortable with the politicization of church.  In fact, some who read my columns might find it hard to believe, but I actually do not preach politics at church.  The closest I come is to talk about the pro-life issue – which I do with passion, but not as a partisan thing.  I never endorse candidates.   I vote for Jesus every Sunday. 

I think this election is a wake up call to many Christians – one that reminds us that, in the final analysis, our mandate is not to reform society via the ballot box, state house, or White House, but rather to proclaim the ultimate narrative, the one that really changes lives.  In other words: “It’s the gospel, stupid.”  We can’t get everything we want, all the time, at the ballot box, but we can always find comfort in the fact that the mercy and grace of God are sufficient.

Billy Graham has been a faithful servant of God and citizen of America.  In a very Kipling-esque sense, he has walked with presidents, but he never lost his “common touch.”

Happy Birthday, Billy!


David Stokes

David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, pastor, columnist, and broadcaster. His latest book is a novel: CAPITOL LIMITED: A Story about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Based on a true story, it's about a unique moment in 1947, when Kennedy and Nixon shared