As a reporter who covers religion for the Observer, I’ve been writing about the Rev. Billy Graham since at least 1996.
But I learned some new things Thursday night when Wake Forest University’s Charlotte Center hosted Grant Wacker, author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.”
Here are five things I didn’t know until the event, during which Charlotte evangelist Leighton Ford interviewed Wacker before a classroom full of people.
1 President Lyndon Johnson (1963-69), a Democrat and fellow Southerner, may have been Graham’s closest friend in the world, outside of the evangelist’s immediate associates.
That’s Wacker’s assessment after reading their letters to each other. “They’re just beautiful,” Wacker told the audience. “And they bespeak a profound male friendship. And you wouldn’t expect that because Lyndon Johnson was a rough character.”
2 Graham’s friendship with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., forged in the late 1950s, broke apart in the 1960s over the war in Vietnam.
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King had tried and failed to dissuade Graham from inviting Texas Gov. Price Daniel – “a flagrant racist,” Wacker said – to give the invocation at a 1958 crusade in San Antonio.
By 1959, their friendship healed, Wacker said, when Graham and King found themselves in the same hotel in Jamaica. “They spent the evening swimming together and praying together,” Wacker said.
But then came the Vietnam War, which escalated during the Johnson administration.
“King came to oppose the war,” Wacker said. “Graham was ambivalent about the war, but he particularly attacked King for ‘disrespecting the Negro soldiers who had so bravely fought,’” in Graham’s words.
3 Graham’s looks – “Hollywood handsome,” one writer called them – were always considered an element of his success with the media and the public.
Wacker said he’d read hundreds of the thousands of newspaper articles written about Graham. “I would say nearly all began with a reference to his looks,” Wacker said. “‘Blonde-haired,’ ‘blue-eyed,’ ‘tall,’ ‘lean,’ ‘trim.’”
Graham’s team appeared to understand, Wacker said, that his handsomeness was particularly an asset when he preached on TV.
Wacker said a reporter once asked a Graham associate: “What if the Lord had made Billy short, fat and scrappy of hair?”
Wilson’s response: “But the Lord didn’t.”
When the reporter pressed the associate, he added: “Being handsome reduces resistance.”
4 Graham, 96, has a suggestion for those planning to speak at his funeral.
Leighton Ford told this story Thursday: He and wife Jean Ford, Graham’s sister, were visiting the Charlotte-born evangelist at his Montreat home several years ago.
“I said, ‘When it comes time for the Lord to call you home, would you like your sister to say something?’”
There was a pause, then Graham said, “I would be very honored.”
“I said, ‘What would you like her to say?’”
Graham said: “He tried to do what he thought he should.”
“And what was that?” Leighton Ford asked him.
After a pause, Graham answered: “Preach the Gospel.”
5 The elderly Graham didn’t hear anything said at the 2007 dedication of the Billy Graham Library.
At least that’s what he told his sister, who recounted the story to me.
The dedication brought three former U.S. presidents to Charlotte, Graham’s hometown. After the laudatory speeches by Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Ford said she told brother Billy: “I hope you don’t have a big head.”
His response: “I didn’t hear a word. The dogs ate my hearing aids yesterday.”