Evangelist Billy Graham had known Lyndon Johnson since the fifties, when Graham was a rising young preacher and Johnson was the junior U.S. senator from Texas, but the friendship did not blossom until 1963, when Johnson turned to Graham following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Johnson’s assumption of the presidency.
Within a week after he moved into the White House, Johnson summoned Graham to Washington. A visit scheduled for fifteen minutes stretched to five hours, as two farm boys who had ridden their talent, ambition, and energy to the pinnacle of their respective professions found they had more to offer each other than either had ever imagined.
That first visit was not all solace and solicitude. Graham had brought his faithful sidekick Grady Wilson with him, and Johnson insisted that they all take a swim in the White House pool. “I was somewhat startled,” Graham recalled, “because they didn’t have any bathing suits. You just went as you were.”
Following this initial contact, Graham invited the president to attend a crusade. Johnson did not accept, but he sent an invitation for the Grahams to spend a night in the White House. That visit sealed the friendship and led Graham to urge the president to “call on us any time we could ever be of the slightest service to you.”
Over the next years, White House files chronicle a continuous exchange of birthday, Christmas, get-well, and general-purpose gifts and greetings. Johnson gave Graham cuff links, a photo album, an electric toothbrush, and a bottle of Senokot natural laxative. Graham reciprocated with gifts of Bibles, a copy of his best-selling Peace With God, a fruitcake, three pairs of colorful leisure shoes that he knew the president admired (“If you wear them,” he warned, “some reporters are likely to term you the Psychedelic President”), and reports of intercessory prayer aimed at everything from hastening Johnson’s recovery from a bout with the §u to supplying him with deep drafts of supernatural wisdom.
For all the attention given to his friendship with subsequent president Richard Nixon, it was Lyndon Johnson who sought Billy’s company more assiduously and seemed to enjoy it more genuinely. Graham estimates that he spent perhaps twenty nights at the White House, at Camp David, and on the LBJ Ranch in the Hill Country, including several visits after Johnson left Washington, and his recollections indicate that he got truer glimpses of that complicated figure’s personality than he was ever allowed by Nixon. He marveled at Johnson’s enormous capacity for work, recalling that sometimes after they had talked far into the night, Johnson would have a massage, usually asking Billy to read the Bible to him while the masseur kneaded and pounded his ponderous frame. Then, instead of sleeping, he would go back to his bedroom and spend hours working through a great stack of papers he felt he needed to process before morning.
Graham readily acknowledged the president’s rough, blustery, calculating, bullying side, but he also saw a warm and tender Lyndon Johnson, who, like himself, was genuinely concerned for his country. Graham conceded that the programs of the Great Society were motivated in part by political aims and by Johnson’s desire to leave a tangible personal legacy, but insisted that “it was a …very deep conviction that he had, that he wanted to do something for the underprivileged and the people that were oppressed in our society, especially black people. I used to think it was sort of a political thing, [but] I visited the ranch a number of times after he left office and he still had that compassion. He would fill his car up with little black children and take them for rides and stop at the store and buy them candy and pick them up in his arms!”
Apart from the real affection he appears to have felt for Graham and the intrinsic satisfaction he found in their friendship, Lyndon Johnson understood the advantages of being Billy’s buddy. If Billy Graham was the president’s friend, then millions of Americans would conclude that the president must be a good man, a decent man, a noble man, perhaps even a Christian man. And if he possessed those qualities, then his causes—his war on poverty, his Civil Rights Act, his effort to preserve freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia—must also be good, decent, noble, perhaps even Christian, and therefore precisely the causes Christian folk ought to support.
For his part, Graham understood that he served to legitimate Johnson to an evangelical constituency, particularly in the South and Southwest. “I think he was attracted to me at least partially because I was well-known in Texas. …I think he was more afraid of what the editor of the Baptist Standard was going to say about him than [the editor] of the Washington Post or the New York Times.”
But Johnson’s memory of a mother who had hoped he would be a preacher, to follow in the steps of her own grandfather, also burdened the president’s complex soul. “He wanted to live up to his mother’s goals,” observed Graham, whose own upbringing had taught him something of what that could mean. “I think he had a con§ict within himself about religion. He wanted to go all the way in his commitment to Christ. He knew what it meant to be ‘saved’ or ‘lost,’ using our terminology, and he knew what it was to be ‘born again.’ And yet he somehow felt that he never quite had that experience. I think he tried to make up for it by having many of the outward forms of religion, in the sense of going to church almost fanatically, even while he was president. Sometimes he’d go to church three times on a Sunday.” Graham recalled that “a number of times I had prayer with him in his bedroom at the White House, usually early in the morning. He would get out of bed and get on his knees while I prayed. I never had very many people do that.”
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