Billy Graham

Former President Clinton pays tribute to Graham’s ‘open heart’ in Charlotte visit

Former President Bill Clinton came to Charlotte’s Billy Graham Library on Tuesday to pay homage to Graham, the evangelist and adviser to presidents who died Wednesday at age 99.

Clinton was met by Franklin Graham, the late evangelist’s son. The two walked down a brick path to Billy Graham’s boyhood home, where his body was lying in repose. Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state, did not accompany her husband.

Clinton stayed in the house about half an hour, then spoke to reporters for six minutes outside the home.

He alluded to the fact that Graham has at times been criticized for being too close to some presidents, especially Richard Nixon. Clinton, speaking without notes, said he agreed with that caution.

“But don’t forget, those of us who are Christians believe in a God of second chances, and the politicians need those more than anybody else,” he said. “You’ve got to cut him a little slack for trying to give a willing ear and an open heart and without regard to his political preferences.”

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Former President Bill Clinton speaks to reporters Tuesday after paying his final respects in Charlotte to the late Billy Graham. Tim Funk tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

Clinton, a native of Arkansas, also described the impact Graham had on him when, at 11, he attended a crusade in Little Rock.

The city’s White Citizens Council tried to pressure Graham into preaching to a segregated crowd, Clinton said, but Graham refused.

“He said that God didn’t see us that way,” Clinton said. “And if those were going to be the rules, he’d have to cancel and tell people why he did it. They folded quick.”

When Clinton was president, he told the reporters, “Hillary and I were glad to have him in the White House a couple of times, but mostly I was glad to see that in that little room he was the same person I saw when I was 11 at that great big football field.”

Clinton added: “That says a lot. I think he was a profoundly good man who conveyed simple beliefs, that we can claim kinship with God by asking … He showed his faith by his works and by his life. And, for me, every time I think about him I’ll be 11 again.”

Clinton, a Democrat, is the second former president in two days to honor Graham at the namesake library.

On Monday, former President George W. Bush, a Republican, and wife Laura were escorted to the closed wooden casket by Franklin Graham, who is also an evangelist.

More than 5,600 people filed past the casket on Monday. The line of visitors Tuesday morning, in sunny weather and on the Charlotte area’s last day to pay respects, appeared to be longer than on the previous day.

Graham’s closed casket rests in his boyhood home that was built in 1927 on the Graham family farm on Park Road. It was moved to the library grounds in 2006. The public may pay their respects there through Tuesday at 10 p.m.

Steve and Pat Lockley, both 70, were among those who filed by Graham’s casket Tuesday. Before moving to Mooresville three years ago, they had lived in California, where they both sang in the choir during a Graham crusade in Los Angeles.

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Pat and Steve Lockley Tim Funk tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

“It was just an awesome experience,” said Pat Lockley said. So, she added, was pausing at Graham’s closed casket Tuesday. “It was humbling to be in the presence of such a wonderful man who touched the whole world.”

Husband Steve Lockley saw Graham at three crusades over the decades, starting when he was he was a child.

“He touched the whole world, but he also touched a lot of people,” he said, including Lockley’s grandfather, a pastor. “Billy’s crusades were sort of a mentoring experience for him,” Lockley said.

President Donald Trump will be in Charlotte on Friday for Graham’s funeral service. Trump’s immediate predecessor, former President Barack Obama, does not plan to attend the service, the Associated Press reported.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who’s 93, won’t be able to attend the service or viewing, his office said. George W. Bush has said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, also 93, would also be unable to attend, for health reasons.

Graham’s body will fly from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to lie in honor in the Capitol rotunda through Thursday.

His body will fly on a DC-8 cargo plane, which is normally used to fly in supplies after natural disasters, operated by Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian relief agency headed by Franklin Graham. Family members will also travel to Washington.

Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will lead a memorial service once Graham’s casket arrives at the Capitol.

Clinton was among the long line of U.S. presidents, starting with President Harry Truman, that Graham advised. The evangelist took part in both of Clinton’s presidential inaugurations, giving the invocation in 1993 and a prayer in 1997.

In 1995, Graham and then-President Clinton both went to Oklahoma City to try to soothe the nation’s pain after 168 people were killed in the bombing of a federal building by home-grown terrorists.

During Clinton’s two terms, Graham visited the White House, sent encouraging letters to the Clintons, acted as an emissary during tense times with North Korea, and even counseled the first lady in the wake of her husband’s sexual encounter in the Oval Office with intern Monica Lewinsky.

In 2007, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton told ABC News that she reached out to Graham after the 1998 scandal.

“He was someone who could understand both Bill and me, and there aren’t many who can,” she said of Graham. “Forgiveness is probably the hardest challenge that any of us face, but when you’re faced with having to do it yourself, especially when it’s playing out in front of the world, it is hard.”

Clinton, who stayed with her husband after the sex scandal, said Graham gave her confidence “that what I was doing, no matter what the rest of the world thought, was right. Right for me, right for my family and right for the country. And I will never forget that.”

When Bill Clinton has talked about Graham over the years, it’s usually been about how he became a fan of the evangelist when the future president was a kid in Arkansas. The young Clinton was so taken with Graham’s refusal to bow to pressure from southern segregationists in the 1950s, according to one report, that he started sending part of his allowance to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In 2007, when Clinton came to Charlotte for the dedication of the Billy Graham Library, he returned to that time in the life of the South.

“Tens of thousands of black and white Christians there together in a football stadium,” Clinton said as the then-elderly Graham sat nearby. “And when he issued the call at the end of this message, thousands came down holding hands, arm-in-arm crying. It was the beginning of the end of the old South in my home state.”

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