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Robert Costa's Notebook: Michael Duffy on ‘The Preacher and the Presidents’

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By Robert Costa

President Trump will attend Rev. Billy Graham’s funeral on Friday in North Carolina. For the late evangelist and Christian leader, it will be one final presidential moment in a lifetime full of them.

Perhaps no one knows the story of Graham’s relationships with U.S. presidents going back to Harry S. Truman better than “Washington Week” regular and TIME Contributing Editor Michael Duffy, who spoke with me by phone this week.

Duffy — who co-authored the 2007 book “The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House” with another longtime TIME editor, Nancy Gibbs — told me Graham was able to forge bonds with so many presidents not only because he was an influential global figure, but because he came to them with offers of forgiveness and trust — offers that were welcomed by men who lived very public lives.

“He kept his mouth shut and didn’t tell anyone what they talked about. He was forgiving. That was his calling card,” Duffy said. “He didn’t want anything and most people want something.”

Over the decades, Duffy said, Graham regularly combined his ability to deftly navigate the high ranks of American power with his own abilities as a pastor. He was at once a pastor and a peer to presidents, huddling with Richard Nixon or playing golf with Gerald R. Ford.

“He had a real grasp of their sheer humanity,” Duffy said. “He knew how to connect with each of them, whether it was with John F. Kennedy, who was very interested in aspects of Catholicism that Protestantism didn’t share, to Lyndon Johnson being worried about death.”

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Duffy added, “He had an intimate relationship with Ronald Reagan and talked with both of the Bushes. He knew the Clintons. He prayed with all of them when they needed it.”

Duffy called Graham a “good judge of horse flesh” when it came to politicians. Graham became friendly with Reagan in the 1940s and George H.W. Bush in the 1960s, always keeping an eye on the next generation of leaders.

“Johnson used to travel with Mr. Graham say, ‘God may crash this plane but not when Billy Graham is on it,’” Duffy said, chuckling.

Graham’s relationship with Nixon, however, has many critics. In Politico magazine this week, Jeff Greenfield details how Graham’s exchanges with Nixon “played to the president’s prejudices with enthusiasm.”

I asked Duffy about President Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian. Were they close?

Duffy said Carter and Graham were similar in faith but “Carter, a Southern Baptist who led Billy Graham crusades back in the 1960s, didn’t need anyone to help him find his way through the Bible.”

These days, the legacy of Graham is a bit “tricky,” Duffy said, since Graham’s son, Franklin, has taken over the Graham family’s brand and become a booster of President Trump.

“Franklin has a different kind of gospel that’s not as inclusive as Mr. Graham. Mr. Graham in the end was not as hardcore about who could get into heaven,” Duffy said.

Duffy and Gibbs began to delve into the subject of Graham and the presidents after the 2004 presidential election, which saw evangelical voters play a big part in reelecting George W. Bush.

“We were interested in this private aspect of the presidency that hadn’t been thoroughly explored. We were looking for patterns, similarities, and we always like to tell stories through people,” Duffy said. “We thought a political biography of Billy Graham could help tell that story.”

All that said, Duffy maintains that Graham’s “lasting achievement isn’t about him and presidents, it’s that he lifted evangelism out of fundamentalism.”

“Until he came along, American evangelism was the haunt of men like Billy Sunday, it was Bible literate,” Duffy said. “Mr. Graham came along and said we can be evangelists, but we don’t have to be uneducated about it. We can be smart and appeal to a lot of Americans. When you look back 100 years, maybe 20 years from now, we’ll see him as the man who saved evangelism.”