Billy Graham

The Presidents’ preacher: From Truman to Trump

President Barack Obama talks with Graham, then 91, at the evangelist's home in Montreat.
President Barack Obama talks with Graham, then 91, at the evangelist's home in Montreat. AP/The White House

For almost half a century, Billy Graham was confidante and clergyman to America’s presidents. A registered Democrat who usually supported Republicans for president, Graham said the Bible tells us to pray for the powerful: “Jacob prayed for the pharaoh, and Daniel prayed for Nebuchadnezzer.” Here’s a president-by-president look:

Harry S. Truman

Graham’s first – and last – invitation to visit President Truman came in 1950. The evangelist and three associates arrived at the White House wearing white suits and buck shoes, a fashion statement meant to honor Democrat Truman, who’d often been photographed in Hawaiian shirts and white buck shoes. After praying with the president, Graham met the press. Still naive about such things at age 31, he answered all their questions about the private meeting – a violation of presidential protocol – and even agreed to photographers’ requests to kneel on the White House grounds. Truman remained suspicious for years: “He claims he’s a friend of all the presidents, but he was never a friend of mine. ... All he’s interested in is getting his name in the papers.”

The two men made up in 1967 during Graham’s visit to Independence, Mo.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Eisenhower got along with Graham from the start, even using him as a sounding board on racial questions. After a white mob prevented black students from attending Central High in Little Rock, Ark., Graham privately urged the Republican president to send in troops. In 1968, Graham was summoned to Walter Reed Army Hospital, where ex-President Eisenhower was dying. “How can I be sure, Billy, that my sins are forgiven?” Ike said. Graham told him there was no need to worry.

billygraham and jfk
Seated at the head table, next to President John F. Kennedy, Graham appears at a prayer breakfast, sponsored by the International Council for Christian Leadership, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum; Boston

John F. Kennedy

America’s first Roman Catholic president invited America’s most famous Protestant minister to lunch and a game of golf in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1961. Kennedy knew Graham had favored his opponent, Richard Nixon, in the 1960 election. But at his father’s suggestion, Democrat Kennedy had asked Graham to come to Florida in hopes of defusing the issue of JFK’s religion. It worked. With the president at his side, Graham told reporters that Kennedy’s election had promoted better relations between Catholic and Protestant churches.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Graham says he probably spent more time with fellow Southerner Johnson than any other president. LBJ sought out Graham on secular matters as well as spiritual ones. During a dinner at the White House in 1964, he ran down a list of 14 possible running mates, then asked Graham which one he should pick. At that, Ruth Graham kicked her husband under the table – an assault the president noticed and asked about. “Billy ought to limit his advice to you to religious and spiritual matters,” she said. They dropped the topic. Until “Lady Bird” Johnson and Ruth left the room, that is. Then the president asked again. “Hubert Humphrey,” Graham replied. That November, the Democratic Johnson-Humphrey ticket won by a landslide.

On Billy Graham Day — Oct. 15, 1971 — in Charlotte, President Richard Nixon and Graham wave from their motorcade on Tryon Street. DON STURKEY Observer file photo

Richard M. Nixon

“There goes young Richard Nixon from California,” Sen. Clyde Hoey of Shelby said as he and Graham sat down to lunch in the Senate dining room in Washington. It was 1950, and Nixon was a Republican senator from California. Nixon invited the young evangelist to play golf that very day – teeing up a long, deep friendship that eventually would damage Graham’s reputation. Graham prayed at both Nixon inaugurations. But by 1973, Graham had become so blindly devoted to his powerful pal that he refused to believe Nixon had anything to do with Watergate. “His moral and ethical principles wouldn’t allow him to do anything illegal,” Graham insisted. A year later, Graham became ill when he read a transcript of the Watergate tapes. But the friendship endured. When Nixon died in 1994, Graham presided at his funeral.

Gerald R. Ford

After Watergate, Graham decided to stay politically neutral. The first president to feel this distancing act: Republican Ford. But Graham wasn’t neutral when it came to golf – they were photographed on the links – and Graham did press Ford to pardon Nixon, which he did.

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Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton laugh as George H.W. Bush jokes about them at the Graham Library dedication. two Democrats at The Billy Graham Library Thursday. TODD SUMLIN - TODD SUMLIN Observer file photo

Jimmy Carter

Though Democrat Carter may have been the most openly religious president in modern times – a self-described, “born-again” Southern Baptist – he and Graham never developed the close friendship the evangelist had with other presidents. But Carter did show up in Charlotte in 2007, along with former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to help Graham dedicate the Billy Graham Library.

Ronald Reagan

Graham resumed his unofficial role as the presidents’ preacher during Ronald Reagan’s two terms. He said the prayer at inaugural church services in 1981 and 1985. And when Mikhail Gorbachev visited the White House in 1988, Graham was the only Protestant minister on Reagan’s invitation list.

But mostly, after Nixon, Graham limited his advice to presidents – and first ladies – to the spiritual realm. Not revealed until 2007: When Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in 1981, the president called Graham from his hospital bed to discuss his desire to forgive the would-be assassin.

holding bush hand at library 07
Billy Graham grasps George Bush's hand at the 2007 dedication of the Billy Graham Library. DIEDRA LAIRD Observer file photo

George H.W. Bush

Graham had known Bush’s family for years before his 1988 election and considered the Republican president a close friend. Graham gave the invocation and benediction at Bush’s inauguration. He returned to the White House on Jan. 16, 1991 – the night America and its allies launched an air attack on Iraq. The next day, Graham attended a worship service for top political and military leaders.

Bill Clinton

In 1993, Graham was asked for the eighth time since 1952 to participate in a president’s inauguration. This time, the invitation came from President-elect Clinton, a Democrat and fellow Southerner. Graham had known Clinton and his wife, Hillary, since 1985. In 1989, then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton talked about his faith at a Graham crusade in Little Rock. Graham spent the night at the White House during Clinton’s term, but the evangelist was no political ally. Former first lady Hillary Clinton revealed in 2007 that Graham helped her forgive her husband for his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush attended Presbyterian and Episcopal churches growing up. But until 1985, he says, he was more interested in partying than churchgoing. That year, during a trip to his parents’ home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush took a walk with a friend of the family – Billy Graham. “Are you OK with God?” Graham asked. “No, but I’d like to be,” Bush replied. Not long after that, Bush gave up drinking. He joined a men’s Bible study group and became active in an evangelical Methodist church. As he did with Bush’s father, Graham retreated some on his pledge to remain politically neutral in presidential election years. In 2000, he sent an election-eve sign. It happened during an appearance in what turned out to be the pivotal state of Florida. There, he made it clear that the younger Bush had his blessing.

When George W. Bush was inaugurated president in 2001, he had hoped to follow his father’s lead and have Graham give the invocation. But Graham was ailing, so he sent his son, Franklin Graham. The result: the first controversy of the new Bush administration. The younger Graham ended his opening prayer by invoking Jesus Christ, a reference that Jews and Muslims said excluded them from the national ceremony.

obama and graham 2010
President Barack Obama talks with Graham, then 91, at the evangelist's home in Montreat. Pete Souza AP/The White House

Barack Obama

By the time America elected its first black president in 2008, Graham was 90 years old and in fragile health. Trips to the White House were, for him, a thing of the past. But meeting with Billy Graham – a religious elder statesman and still high on the annual most-admired lists – was a presidential tradition Barack Obama was keen to continue. In April 2010, at the end of an Asheville vacation for Obama and his wife, Michelle, the 44th president became the 12th president to meet with Graham – and the first sitting one to visit the Graham’s mountaintop home in Montreat. It could have been an awkward get-together: Just days before, the U.S. Army had disinvited Franklin Graham to speak at a Pentagon prayer service because of his past comments denouncing Islam as an evil religion. But the younger Graham, who was present during the visit, reported that his father and the president, who had never met before, had an amiable 35-minute visit. They talked about golf, their wives, Chicago – a city that helped launch both of their careers – and the burdens of the presidency. “Daddy reminisced about the first time he met a president (Truman in 1950),” Franklin Graham said. The evangelist also gave Obama two Bibles – one for himself, one for the first lady.

Donald Trump

Though Trump did not meet with Billy Graham during his presidency , he did attend the elder Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013 at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. Then the star of TV’s “The Apprentice” and a New York real estate tycoon, Trump was invited to the event by Graham’s son, Franklin, who later became a strong supporter of Trump’s after his 2016 election to the White House. Franklin Graham even suggested during a post-election appearance at a Trump rally that God played a role in the Republican’s win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Compiled by Tim Funk

Sources: “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story” by William Martin (Quill); “Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness” by Marshall Frady (Little, Brown); “Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World” by John Pollock (World Wide Publications); “A Charge to Keep” by George W. Bush (William Morrow); The New York Times; Newsweek; “Larry King Live,” CNN; The Weekly Standard; and an Aug. 22, 1996, Charlotte Observer interview with Graham.