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Graham’s bonds with presidents examined

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A special edition of ABC’s “20/20” Aug. 10 will examine the unique relationships Billy Graham has had with 11 U.S. presidents and his spiritual counsel to some of the most influential figures of modern history.

“Pastor to Power: Billy Graham and the Presidents,” will air that night at 10 o’clock EST in conjunction with the release of “The Preacher and the Presidents,” a book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy of Time magazine.

Hosted by Charles Gibson, the special includes interviews with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush as well as former first ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton.

The current President Bush and his wife, Laura, also share their thoughts on the renowned evangelist. When Gibson asked Bush how his life would be different if not for Graham, his answer was, “I wouldn’t be president.”

Bush referred to a time in the early 1980s when Graham visited the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the two took a walk along the seashore to talk about spiritual matters.

Bush told Gibson he was longing for something and Graham was there in a time of need, Bush said. Graham gave Bush a Bible, which Bush read from cover to cover twice, according to a review copy of the special obtained by Baptist Press. Shortly after the walk with Graham, Bush stopped drinking and embarked on a path that led him to the Oval Office.

“You think maybe when you meet him he will be judgmental, but he’s exactly the opposite,” Laura Bush said. “And I think that’s very comforting and encouraging for people.”

Gibson chronicles Graham’s encounters with the presidents, starting with an awkward meeting with Harry Truman when Graham wore a pistachio green suit to the White House.

Graham then counseled Dwight Eisenhower, met with John F. Kennedy and became one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s closest confidantes during the Vietnam War. Some said Graham was too close a friend to Richard Nixon, and he later had a steady friendship with Gerald Ford.

Though Jimmy Carter was a fellow Southern Baptist, his insistence on a firm “separation between church and state” meant fewer public appearances with Graham.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to give Graham special privileges, such as approving a trip for Graham to preach behind the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe. Though the U.S. State Department advised against it, Reagan thought Graham could help bring the curtain down, Gibson said.

After Reagan’s death, Nancy Reagan wanted Graham to tell her whether her husband will be in heaven waiting for her when she dies. She told Gibson she is confident of the coming reunion because “Billy said so.”

George H.W. Bush requested Graham’s presence at the White House the night the first bombs fell in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

“The relationship with Billy Graham was an important signal to evangelical voters: George Bush, though he was an Episcopalian and though he was from New England, was someone who thought like they did. The trick for Bush Sr. was not to let what was a real friendship look like a marriage of convenience,” Duffy, the author, told Gibson.

Perhaps the greatest role Graham played during the Clinton administration was helping to keep the Clintons’ marriage intact after the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, according to the program. Graham first sent a letter to the couple, urging them to stay together, and then he visited them at Martha’s Vineyard to offer further counsel.

“He was someone who could understand both Bill and me, and there aren’t many people who can,” Hillary Clinton said. “… 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.”

Graham, she said, convinced her “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 my country. And I will never forget that.”

During a roundtable discussion with Carter, Bush Sr. and Clinton at the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in North Carolina in May, Graham reflected on his relationships with the most recent presidents.

“I thought of them as just wonderful human beings who were wonderful personal friends as I knew them, each one,” Graham said. “Each one I’ve known long before they ever became president, been in their homes many times; always called them by their first names, until they became president.”

The current President Bush emphasized the need for someone like Graham during the trials of a presidency.

“I don’t see how you can be president without faith. I’m sure some have done it. In my case, I don’t see how I could be president without a belief,” Bush said.

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  • Erin Roach