This post is worth re-publishing today:
I was also thinking about titling this post “The First Court Evangelical”
From Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of the Nation, pp.212-214.
Graham possessed boundless admiration for Nixon. In the 1968 contest between Nixon and Senator Hubert Humphrey, as in the 1960 race between Nixon and Kennedy, Graham did not issue a formal or explicit endorsement of Nixon, but he made no attempt to camouflage his views either. One week before the election the press reported that Nixon’s name was on Graham’s absentee ballot…
The relationship continued to thicken….Honor Billy Graham Day in Charlotte on October 15, 1971, won another visit from the president. Some felt that Nixon’s remarks about Graham that day crossed the line from honor to adulation. Less than a month before the 1972 presidential election, Graham declared on the Merv Griffin Show: “Nixon is the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history. In an election year that divides people…I [have] to be honest.
These events form the context in which Graham’s reaction to Nixon’s role in the Watergate controversy should be framed. The details of the low-level crime and high-level mendacity that led to Nixon’s impeachment and forced his resignation in August 1974 have been rehearsed many times and need not detain us. The crucial point is that Graham continued to defend Nixon long after most Americans smelled a rat. When the first hint of something amiss came to light in 1972, Graham dismissed it as pettifogery. He pointed out that illicit undercover behavior was no stranger to the White House. Through 1972 Graham allowed that the Watergate events themselves were troubling but insisted that Nixon had nothing to do with them. As late as December he privately assured Nixon of his personal affection and “complete confidence in your personal integrity./” Graham maintained that posture through January 1974.
Finally, on April 29, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee received 1,200 pages of transcripts of Oval Office conversations. They showed that Nixon had participated in the cover-up virtually from the outset. The transcripts also showed Nixon’s capacity for vulgarity and profanity. Graham finally muscled up the courage to start reading New York Times excerpts in the middle of May. “The think that surprised me and shook me most was the vulgar language he used…I felt physically sick.” Elsewhere Graham admitted to weeping and throwing up. Graham biographer Marshall Frady said Graham attributed Nixon’s fall to “sleeping pills and demons.” Graham insisted he was misquoted. But he was prepared to say that “all of Watergate was demonic because…it caused the American people to lose confidence in its institutions….almost as though some supernatural power of evil was trying to destroy this country.
Graham’s reference to Nixon’s language left many journalists and historians appalled. They felt Graham had proved incapable of distinguishing between the minor issue of cussing and the major one of undermining the government. On the face of it they were right….
Graham’s entanglement with Nixon marked a turning point. Until 1974 Graham had tumbled more and more rapidly into the vortex of partisan politics. When Nixon crashed, his muddy reputation soiled Graham’s. The Nixon years represented the bottom of Graham’s slide. Graham acknowledged that Nixon’s magnetism had clouded his judgment. In 1993 he would say, simply, that his friendship with Nixon had “muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics. He urged young evangelists to avoid his mistake…
Needless to say, I also tell a version of this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.