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 conflict 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.”
Of all the areas of national policy in which Johnson sought Graham’s approval, none was more sensitive than the war in Vietnam. Graham was convinced that the president anguished over the war, observing, “He carried a tremendous burden for the boys in Vietnam. He felt he was personally responsible for boys being killed.” Shortly before Graham was to address a world congress of church leaders in Berlin, Johnson had told him, “Billy, if anyone asks you about Vietnam, you say the president of the United States wants peace and will go anywhere in the world to talk peace.” Graham remembered that “he pounded the table so hard as he spoke that I said, ‘Mr. President, I am the only other person here, and you don’t have to convince me.’ ”
Yet as American involvement in Vietnam grew deeper and more torturous, Graham found himself pulled in contradictory directions. At Christmastime 1966, he visited the troops in Vietnam, with Johnson’s blessing, but the trip did not quiet his misgivings. He told reporters that he continued to view the war as “complicated, confusing, and frustrating,” adding that “I leave with more pessimism about an early end to the war than when I arrived. How can we have peace? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I had hoped there would be some formula, but I don’t see it.”
As the war wore on, he ventured that “I’m not so sure I would have gotten involved, but it’s not all President Johnson’s fault.” Graham returned to Vietnam at Christmas 1968, this time at the importunate invitation of General Creighton Abrams, Jr., who had replaced General William Westmoreland. Perhaps hoping to gain some leverage with a Congress that consistently refused to provide the manpower and weaponry it felt it needed, the military accorded Graham full V.I.P. treatment. He preached nearly 25 times, occasionally teaming up with Bob Hope.
In contrast to his visit two years before, Graham this time found morale “unbelievably high” and assured the home folk that American soldiers “know why they are fighting in Vietnam, and they believe what they are doing is right.” He told reporters, “There is no question: The war is won militarily.” Graham’s optimism regarding the end of the war stemmed at least in part from an aching hope that his tormented friend in the White House might find some relief from his trials.
When Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31, 1968, that in the interest of national unity, he would not seek reelection, Billy Graham was one of few Americans who were not surprised. Nearly a year earlier, Johnson confided to Graham that he did not expect to run for a second term. That decision, Graham contended, stemmed less from weariness with the struggle than from fears about his health. “My people don’t live too long,” Johnson had said. “My father died when he was about my age. I don’t think I could live out another term, and I don’t want the country to have to deal with that.” Such fears were not rare for Johnson, according to Graham. “He thought a great deal about death, and he talked to me about it several times.
“I had a number of quiet, private talks with him about his relationship with the Lord,” Graham recalled. “One of them was not long before he died. We were sitting in his convertible Lincoln, where he’d been chasing some of the deer right across the fields. We were stopped, looking out, and the sun was sinking. We had a very emotional time, because I just told him straight out that if he had any doubts about his relationship with God, that he’d better get it settled. I said, ‘Mr. President’—I still called him Mr. President then; before he became president, I called him Lyndon—‘according to what you say, you don’t think you have much longer to live. You’d better be sure you’re right with God and have made your peace with him.’ He bowed his head over the steering wheel and said, ‘Billy, would you pray for me?’ I said, ‘Yessir,’ and I did. He was very re§ective after that. We must have sat there for another hour, hardly talking at all, just looking at the sunset.”
Later during that same visit, Johnson told Graham that he wanted him to preach at his funeral and gave him the choice of presiding over a memorial service in Washington or the burial at the ranch. Graham said he felt more comfortable at the ranch, which seemed to please the president. He led the preacher over to a small grave plot and said, “I want to be buried right here. My father’s grave is right there, my mother’s right there.” Then he stopped and looked Graham in the eye: “Billy, will I ever see my mother and father again?” Graham provided him with the promise that gives Evangelical faith its greatest power: “Well, Mr. President, if you’re a Christian and they were Christians, then someday you’ll have a great homecoming.”
Johnson pulled out a handkerchief and began brushing tears from his eyes. Then he decided that others needed to hear what he had just heard. Returning to discussion of the funeral, he said, “Obviously, there’ll be members of the press here. I don’t know how many, but maybe they’ll come from around the world. Billy, I want you to look in those cameras and just tell ’em what Christianity is all about. Tell ’em how they can be sure they can go to heaven. I want you to preach the gospel.” He paused. “But somewhere in there, you tell ’em a few things I did for this country.”