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As President Richard Nixon entered his last stretch in office, dogged by an ever-expanding scandal, he could still count on stalwart supporters like Rev. Billy Graham.
On April 6, 1973 — the very day that White House Counsel John Dean started cooperating with Watergate prosecutors, a development that would ultimately seal Nixon’s political doom — Graham wrote to the embattled president, comparing Nixon’s travails to those of a major biblical figure.
“I have marveled at your restraint as the rumors fly about Watergate,” Graham wrote Nixon. “King David had the same experience. He said: ‘They accuse me of things I have never even heard about. I do them good but they return me harm.’ (Psalm 35: 11-12).”
The supportive letter [PDF] was emblematic of Graham’s communications with Nixon. It appeared, with many others, in an extensive “alphabetical name file” compiled by the Nixon administration to catalogue contacts with or about Graham.
The Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., recently released the file. Some of the hundreds of papers, which fill eight folders, have been disclosed before. Others are only now going public.
When read together in this collection, which includes everything from informal personal notes to internal memos from the White House, National Security Council and State Department, the documents detail the depth of the alliance between two American icons as they navigated a difficult era together. And a key former Nixon aide’s memories help put the disclosures in context.
Among the new revelations are details on just how early Graham came to Nixon’s political aid, how the reverend helped the president manage the fallout from the Kent State massacre, the degree to which the White House deployed Graham on foreign missions, and Graham’s behind-the-scenes role as a political counselor to the president.
A long alliance
Graham and Nixon frequently corresponded, talked on the telephone and visited each other for long conversations. Several Nixon aides also interfaced with the preacher on a regular basis.
During the years while Nixon was in office, Graham insisted that his relationship with the president was spiritual, not political.
In fact, it was both.
“Not only are you a great President … but you are a great friend,” Graham wrote Nixon in an October 1971 letter included in the alphabetical file. [PDF] The records show how Graham backed Nixon’s political agendas and prospects, how attentive and active he was during key electoral intrigues, and how he often found a seat at the heart of presidential politics.
Dwight Chapin, a presidential assistant who handled Nixon’s appointments from 1968 to 1972, wrote many of the memos in the file. Along the way, he was an eyewitness to Graham and Nixon’s strategic alliance.
“Their relationship was incredibly warm and friendly, very, very respectful, and had a continuity over time,” Chapin said in a recent telephone interview with Carolina Public Press from his home in East Hampton, N.Y., where he works as a business and political consultant. “Nixon had known Billy since the Eisenhower years and stayed in touch with him.”
In fact, Graham had given Nixon a significant tactical boost as early as 1960, Chapin said. That year, then-Vice President Nixon narrowly lost his bid for the presidency to John F. Kennedy, but his campaign succeeded in perfecting the art of the “advance men” — squads of staffers who would travel ahead of the candidate and line up contacts, events and pre-publicity.
Chapin later learned from a top Nixon aide, Bob Haldeman, that the advance men met early in the campaign with some of Graham’s staffers, who were renowned for their advance work for evangelistic crusades. “I don’t know if that’s ever been revealed, but a significant chunk of the advance men’s manual that was always used by the Nixon people, in 1960, ’68 and ’72, originated back with the Billy Graham crusade people,” Chapin said.
The ‘imperative’ reelection
Over the years, Nixon and Graham grew closer and collaborated more. One memo in the file documents an exclusive strategy session and dinner on the presidential yacht [PDF], the Sequoia, in August 1971. Nixon, elected president in 1968, was starting to focus on his upcoming reelection effort, and used the jaunt up the Potomac River to huddle with some of his most trusted advisors and brainstorm campaign themes.
In attendance were six ranking Nixon administration officials — Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Chief Domestic Advisor John Erlichman, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Presidential Counselor Donald Rumsfeld, and Special Counsel Harry Dent — and one man of the cloth: Billy Graham.
The newly released files don’t reveal more about that night, but Haldeman’s previously released diary notes fill in the blanks about what was discussed.
“The P[resident] and Graham dominated the conversation” during the Sequoia dinner cruise, Haldeman wrote.
Graham started by talking about the “great success” of his recent evangelistic crusades in Nixon’s home state of California. Nixon then fulminated on his “leadership decadence theory,” which held that many members of the country’s “leadership class,” including most ministers, had “become soft.”
“Graham agreed with him, but expanded that what this country needs from the P is a very strong challenge, rather than the government giving them everything,” Haldeman noted. “Graham also expanded on his firm belief that it was absolutely imperative that the P be reelected next year, or there wouldn’t be any hope for [Graham] or his movement or the country.”
Crusading after Kent State
By then, Graham had proven his ability to buoy the president, both privately and publicly, in the face of some of Nixon’s hardest challenges.
At about 1 a.m. on April 29, 1970, Nixon called Graham’s Montreat, N.C., home and spoke to the reverend.
Nixon said that his heart was heavy due to a major public address he would have to deliver soon. He didn’t mention the specifics, just that it would be a “tough speech” about a policy change “aimed at saving American lives,” Graham later recalled.
After the call, Nixon turned in for a brief, fitful sleep before waking early to edit the speech. A few hours later, Graham telegrammed a personal message [PDF] that quickly went to the president’s desk: “Am praying that God will give you extra wisdom in making the crucial decision concerning domestic and foreign affairs. If I can be of any help don’t hesitate to call. God bless you.”
The evening of April 30, Nixon gave his “tough speech” on national television. U.S. troops, he announced, would invade Cambodia in an effort to speed an end to the Vietnam War. In fact, the United States had already been secretly bombing Cambodian targets for a year, which soon became public knowledge.
College campuses erupted in protest, and four days later, National Guard troops opened fire at Kent State University in Ohio. Haldeman briefed Nixon on the tragedy and recorded the president’s reaction in a diary entry: “I told him of the four students killed at Kent State. He’s very disturbed. Afraid his decision set it off.”
Nixon “talked a lot about how we can get through to the students, [and] turn this stuff off,” Haldeman wrote. In the following days, the White House went searching for a way to show that some young Americans still supported the president.
Graham quickly offered a potential way to do that at an upcoming religious crusade event in Knoxville, Tenn., the records show. Nixon assistant Chapin reported the good news, with some caveats about the timing.
“I talked to Billy Graham and he feels Thursday night would be fine for the President to go to Knoxville,” Chapin wrote in a Monday, May 25, memo to Haldeman [PDF]. “Thursday evening, the program is ‘Youth Night.’ Every evening they have from ten to fifteen thousand University students, and Graham expects more on Thursday night. The majority of the people attending are always under 25.”
That demographic brought with it some risks, even at a Southern school with a fairly conservative student body like UT-Knoxville, so Graham offered some precautions.
“Dr. Graham feels that perhaps we should not announce the trip until Wednesday evening or maybe as late as Thursday morning,” Chapin wrote. “At that time, it could be announced that the President is just dropping by the Crusade on the way to California. He points out that there are 140 radical students on campus and that they will probably try to cause some trouble.”
Still, Graham expected that “the bulk of the students will behave themselves properly,” Chapin wrote.
Nixon accepted the offer and spoke to an overflow crowd of some 75,000 people in the university’s football stadium, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to address a Billy Graham crusade. And though some student protestors made it into the audience, the din of gospel songs, applause and prayers overwhelmed the smattering of anti-war chants.
“With any [Nixon] appearance on a college campus at that time came the element of the demonstrators,” recalled Chapin, who was in the stands to witness the president’s reception. He judged the appearance “a phenomenal event — one of those spine-tingling moments.”
On the foreign-policy front, Graham became something like Nixon’s ambassador-at-large to problematic corners of the world. He traded warm messages between the president and foreign leaders in Iran, Israel, South Korea, Taiwan and other hotspots.
No less than National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger weighed in from time to time to make sure that Graham helped advance U.S. foreign policy goals, and that the White House helped Graham’s crusades. In September of 1971, for example, Kissinger sent the president a memo on “Billy Graham and the President of Liberia.” [PDF]
“As you know, Dr. Graham is a friend of the new Liberian President, William Tolbert, and is interested in strengthening the personal relationship between the two of you,” Kissinger wrote. Later in the memo, he added: “I could not recommend and assume that you have no interest in going yourself” to Tolbert’s inauguration.
“Personally, I think that Dr. Graham, himself would be very good as your personal representative to the inauguration,” Kissinger continued.
Nixon took the advice, and added his wife, Pat Nixon, to the official U.S. contingent that would help Graham welcome Liberia’s new leader into office.
A year later, after Nixon won reelection by an overwhelming margin in November 1972, the White House upped its support for Graham’s global crusade, which was then headed to parts of Africa and southeast Asia.
On Nov. 13, a National Security Council memo [PDF], probably penned by Kissinger and titled “Dr. Billy Graham Travel Abroad,” instructed the State Department to “inform all posts of his travel” and ask U.S embassies to confirm Graham’s appointments with foreign leaders.
A cable to the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo [PDF] shows how such missives played out. “Your personal attention to Dr. Graham and the extension of all appropriate courtesies would be appreciated,” wrote William Rogers, Nixon’s secretary of state.
Missions at home
On the home front, Nixon employed Graham as a confidential liaison with powerful U.S. leaders, from Alabama Gov. George Wallace to former President Lyndon Johnson.
Much of Graham’s back-channel domestic diplomacy for Nixon has been revealed before, but the new files offer a new level of detail, especially regarding Nixon’s 1972 reelection effort against Democratic challenger George McGovern.
“Things seem to be going well in the campaign,” Graham wrote Nixon six weeks before the election [PDF]. “I personally think your strategy at the present time is correct.”
Part of that strategy, the records show, was to use Graham to forge new White House ties to Southern evangelicals. In August of 1972, Nixon met with Oral Roberts in the Oval Office, a meeting prompted in part by advice from Graham.
Nixon’s Southern strategist, Harry Dent, briefed the president before the meeting [PDF] and noted that Graham was among those advising that “identification with Roberts would be good because of his visibility to middle America via the tube” and that “Roberts has close identification with clean-cut youth, as well as conservative folk in general.”
Graham also tapped his network of Southern political friends for insider intelligence on how Nixon was faring. A month before the election, for example, Graham attended church with North Carolina’s Democratic candidate for governor, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles. Afterward, Graham called Chapin at the White House to relay some scuttlebutt and predictions [PDF].
“Graham said [Bowles] has his own poll in North Carolina which presently shows McGovern getting 13% of the vote. In regard to the Senate seat, Billy’s friend said that [Jesse] Helms is even with the Democrat” and that “Helms may be elected.”
Such tidbits of information were hardly political bombshells, but Graham delivered a steady stream of them to the White House and many were brought to the president’s attention.
“We in the campaign always felt that Billy was on our side,” Chapin recalled. “That may or may not have been what Billy thought, but that’s how we felt, and he didn’t do anything to dissuade us of that point of view.”
A ‘sheep led to the slaughter’?
Long after Nixon was disgraced out of office in 1974, Graham said he was somewhat shocked by what declassified White House files were beginning to reveal about his relationship with Nixon.
“I knew what I had said to the president, and I knew what he had said to me,” Graham told a biographer in 1991. “But I was unaware of all those memos circulating in the background. When I read about that, I felt like a sheep led to the slaughter.”
Chapin, who stresses his continued admiration for Graham, thinks that the reverend was keenly aware of his role in Nixon-era politics. At the White House, Chapin said, “There was no mentality of, ‘How do we trap Billy into doing something?’ We would just ask him, and sometimes he’d say yes and sometimes he’d say no.”
“I think Billy knew exactly what was going on,” Chapin said. “And I think he felt it was important to be showing support for the president.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in one instance and had the wrong month for when President Richard Nixon made an early-morning call in 1970 to Rev. Billy Graham in Montreat.