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by William H. Benson

August 7, 2008

     The two men—Billy Graham and Richard Nixon—were great friends. They had known each other since 1950. About the same age with children about the same age, the two families often visited each other. Graham was an unabashed and loyal supporter of Richard Nixon, something that observers who detested Nixon could not understand.

     In January of 1969, Billy Graham attended Nixon’s inauguration and gave the prayer, offering his thanks to God that, “in Thy sovereignty, Thou hast permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history.”

     During Nixon’s first four years in the White House, Billy Graham had immediate access to the President. In 1970 a Nixon aide said, “Others may have trouble getting through the White House switchboard, but not Billy; Billy can get through right away.”

     “But it was as if Graham, in his confederation with Nixon, proceeded in a kind of perceptual and moral glaucoma,” wrote the journalist Marshall Frady.

     Billy was so trusting in Nixon’s integrity that he invited the President to attend and speak briefly at the Billy Graham Crusade in Knoxville, Tennessee in May of 1970. This came shortly after Nixon had authorized the raids into Cambodia and the resulting violence that had erupted at Kent State and other college campuses across the country. Hecklers showed up that night to shout at the President, “Peace Now!”

     Nixon easily won the 1972 election, trouncing George McGovern, and again Billy prayed the prayer at Nixon’s second inauguration. Even the news of crimes being committed at the Watergate Hotel in June of 1972 did not disturb Graham, who said, “I don’t think anyone, even the President, knows the whole truth. . . . I have known him a long time, and he has a very strong sense of integrity.”

     As the Senate hearings droned on through 1973 and into 1974, Billy Graham began to feel that Nixon had cut him off. Of this, he seemed baffled, saying, “I don’t know what my relationship is now. I heard from a friend of the President that he didn’t want to get Billy Graham involved, so maybe he just wanted to keep me entirely out of it.”

     Billy was floored when Nixon’s financial records were made public: he had tapped into government funds to enhance his plush personal retreats at San Clemente and at Key Biscayne, and he had given so little to charities or to church.

     Graham said, “I just couldn’t understand it. He’d never seemed to me to really want things like that. He never wanted clothes or fancy things around him or money or anything like that. . . . I could hardly believe it.”

     In the spring of 1974, the transcripts of Nixon’s private Oval Office sessions, with all the “expletives deleted,” were released. Publicly, Billy Graham said, “I just didn’t know that he used this type of language in talking to others.” But privately, Billy wept, so devastated was he. “I’d thought he was a man of such great integrity. . . . I’d never, ever, heard him tell a lie. But then the way it sounded in those tapes—it was all something totally foreign to me in him. He was just suddenly somebody else.”

     On the evening of August 8, 1974, Nixon announced that he would resign the next day at noon.

     Charles Colson, one of Nixon’s aides, later said, “Nixon had a penchant for knowing how to use and manipulate people. He was the consummate politician. He would demand great loyalty, but as Watergate proved, he never quite gave it back.”

     For years after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, Billy was entirely sincere when he insisted that Nixon had not ever manipulated the world-renowned evangelist for his own political purposes. Leighton Ford, Billy’s brother-in-law, said, “I have never heard him say one thing that made me believe he thought he was being used.”

     Another close associate stated it more bluntly, “For the life of me, I honestly believe that after all these years, Billy still has no idea of how badly Nixon snookered him.”