“Mr. President, I think this is your finest hour,” the caller said. “I wanted to reach through the TV screen and hug you.”
So began the last recorded conversation between the Rev. Billy Graham, who called from Montreat, N.C., and President Richard Nixon, who was in the Oval Office.
The recording was released yesterday by the Nixon Presidential Library, part of 340 hours of tapes that are the last batch of Nixon’s secret White House recordings to go public. The five-minute chat caught Nixon at one of his darkest moments, just after he’d delivered his first, fateful speech about the Watergate scandal on national television. (Listen to the recording below.)
In the April 30, 1973, speech, Nixon announced that he’d fired key aides and would put the Watergate matter to rest. In the newly released recordings of the calls that came to him that night — from such notables as George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan — Nixon sounded increasingly despondent and drunk. In the following year, his presidency would unravel and end with his resignation.
At the time of the call, though, Graham was still a major Nixon booster. ”I thought you were just great, and everybody I’ve talked to feels the same way,” the evangelist told the president.
Nixon responded by predicting that critics would keep hammering him. “As you know, they’ll continue to slash away, so what the hell,” he said, before quickly apologizing for his language. “Excuse me, excuse me the ‘hell,’” he said, chuckling.
A rare relationship
Billy Graham, now 94, has counseled more U.S. presidents than any other person currently alive. His relationship with Nixon proved to be his closest connection to the White House. By the time Nixon was in hot water over Watergate, Graham and Nixon were calling each other several times a month and engaged in regular, mutually supportive discussions.
In the newly released call, Graham suggested that Nixon was the victim of a conspiracy. “You know, Ruth [Graham, Billy's wife], she thinks it’s all a communist plot, left-wing and everything else,” Graham said of the brewing Watergate storm.
“It is, it is, it is, you know that,” Nixon responded.
“You haven’t been defeated, but you’ve stood steady and you’ve won a victory tonight, and a big one,” Graham told Nixon. “Maybe one of the biggest in history.”
As for the president’s critics in the broadcast media, “I felt like slashing their throats,” Graham told Nixon.
In the conversation, Graham mostly stuck to counseling and buoying the embattled president. “Your sincerity, your humility, your asking for prayer, all of that had a tremendous impact,” he told Nixon. “I’m telling you the truth, and I’m not trying to just encourage you. I really mean it.”
Nixon was unusually sentimental during the call, and both men said the words “I love you” to each other.
As the conversation wound down, Nixon thanked Graham profusely and apologized after another spat of presidential profanity — for saying “goddamn-it” while asking Graham whether Nixon’s “God bless America” line in the speech had been too melodramatic.
Most of all, Nixon seemed relieved to still have the evangelist’s ear.
“The thing about Billy Graham, he always calls, when it’s good or bad,” Nixon said during the call.