I had the great privilege of meeting Billy Graham and interviewing him several times while a reporter for Time magazine. I was especially fortunate to travel to many places all over the world where he had preached and to talk to people who had come to know him very well. With two colleagues, we put together a video profile for the TV series “Great Souls,” which was finally marketed through public television. I was privileged to be invited into his home in North Carolina, and to become acquainted, just a little bit with him and his amazing wife Ruth, and then with his sons and daughters. All of this was very important when I was writing my book Great Souls: Six Who Changed a Century, one the of whose chapters was an account of Graham and the moral quality of his life, and then my relatively recent biography, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence.
The one moral quality which shone more brightly than any others with Graham was his personal humility. On one occasion when some clergy objected to his holding a meeting at a specific venue in some English city as an evangelist in the 1940s – they objected to his principle of a person making an individual decision to receive Christ – he privately met with each of the objecting clerics and apologized for upsetting them. They all instantly were one over by the example of his gracious humility.
Back in the US, the CBS anchor Dan Rather had criticized him heavily for accepting an invitation to a Moscow peace conference in 1982. But in retrospect, the visit opened up invitations for Graham to reach in all of the countries of Eastern Europe that later turned against communism in 1989. Graham had sensed that such a movement would come to pass. To the considerable credit of Dan Rather, he admitted later,
“I was wrong and Graham was right big time.”
One of Graham’s most remarkable moral successes throughout his life was to resist the temptation of financial success. When a prominent political fundraiser told him in the 1950s that if he were willing to run for president, there would be $1 million in his bank account the following day, Graham turned him down flat. He joked about it later: “Ruth told me that if I ran for the presidency I would have to do it as a divorced man.”
Graham was personally revolted by the vulgar language that came out of the mouth of his good political friend President Richard Nixon during the times of the Watergate tapes. He had never seen that side of Nixon during his long friendship with the politician. But when Nixon was hospitalized with an illness after Watergate, Billy Graham and Ruth paid for a plane to fly over the hospital in a warm salute to Nixon. When Nixon resigned, his successor President Ford was bitterly criticized for granting him a pardon. It might have cost Ford the election against Jimmy Carter. But one of the voices recommending a pardon for the sake of bringing peace back to politics in the US was that of Billy Graham.
In today’s toxic political and cultural atmosphere in the United States, extending the grace of forgiveness to others is one of the most prominent missing public virtues. How much all of us Americans will miss the example of Billy Graham over the next few years.
David Aikman is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist, a best-selling author, and a foreign affairs commentator based in the Washington, D.C. area. He is also a regular guest on The Early Morning Late Show. Read more from David Aikman at his website.