President Richard Nixon had just delivered his first major address on the Watergate affair, insisting he was not aware of the break-in and wanted punishment for the perpetrators.
It was a time of turmoil for Nixon. That day, he demanded the resignation of key aides, and his attorney general resigned.
And the Rev. Billy Graham was there for Nixon, calling him after the speech to offer encouragement, raves and love.
The tape of that call on April 30, 1973, was released last week along with 340 hours of other conversations by the Nixon Presidential Library and posted online by the National Archives and Records.
In the five-minute conversation, Graham said Nixon delivered a convincing, even historic, speech. He also told Nixon the TV network coverage of the speech that night generally was positive, with the exception of CBS.
“I felt like slashing their throats,” Graham said, getting no response from Nixon. “But anyway, God be with you.”
Graham told Nixon the speech was “his finest hour” and possibly one of the greatest speeches in history.
Nixon said he didn’t have much time to work on the speech because he’d been so busy, in part demanding the resignations of his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and aide John Ehrlichman.
The conversation continued, with Graham critiquing Nixon’s delivery:
Graham: “Your sincerity, your humility, your asking for prayers – all of that had a tremendous impact.”
Nixon: “You really think so, Billy?”
Graham: “I’m telling you the truth, and I’m not just trying to encourage you. I know you get all that. I really mean it.”
Graham goes on to say The Associated Press called him earlier, and he told them Nixon showed “commendable humility, he accepted the responsibility, he provided an appropriate course of action, and he asked for our prayers. He deserves the prayers and unity of all Americans, and he has mine.”
Nixon replied, “Good for you, Billy. Good, good, good. …
“It was so good of you to call,” Nixon said. “The thing about Billy Graham, he always calls, when it’s good or bad.”
“You know how I love you,” Graham said.
“Well, I love you,” Nixon replied.
Nixon also asked Graham if his sign-off, in which he said, “God bless you, God bless all of you” might have come across as a little melodramatic.
“But God (expletive),” Nixon said, “Excuse me. That’s what I felt. That’s what I believed.”
“You looked good, and you delivered it so well,” Graham said. “I thought you would look tired, I thought you would look haggard, I thought you would look bad. But my goodness, you came on there. It was really one of your greatest moments, and God bless you.”
Nixon told Graham, “God bless you, and thank you for your wonderful friendship. I’ll never forget it, win or lose. Win or lose, I don’t care.”
“You’re winning tonight,” Graham said, before hanging up.
‘I wanted to believe the best’
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association released a statement Thursday noting that Graham had “a personal, pastoral relationship with the 11 presidents in office during his nearly six decades of public ministry, including Richard Nixon.”
“Like presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who also phoned the president that evening, at that time, Mr. Graham trusted his integrity, as he didn’t yet know the whole story,” the association stated. “Mr. Graham’s pastoral intent was to be accessible and transparent in encouraging his longtime friend, not enabling the president. At that point, the evangelist wholeheartedly believed in the innocence of the president and used a euphemism to express righteous anger on his behalf.
“In response to some of the things he said during the Watergate era, (Graham) admitted, ‘I sometimes put my foot in my mouth. I’ve made many statements I wish I could recall. I am an erring, fallible disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ ”
Graham later realized Nixon had misled him, and after reading some of the Oval Office transcripts, Graham became physically ill, the association said. “I wanted to believe the best about him for as long as I could,” the association quoted Graham as saying. “When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me.” The Associated Press contributed to this report
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