In the wake of the death of Rev. Billy Graham at age 99 last week, Fox News anchor Eboni K. Williams asked me which presidents Graham had most influenced. That’s a hard question to gauge because he’d met with all of the presidents since Harry Truman at least once.
Graham was born within seven years of Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush and provided them with prayer and care. Because he was a contemporary of these presidents during the growing years of his ministry, Graham’s greatest presidential impact may have come in influencing the pre-presidency years of Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPerdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill Could the coming 'red wave' election become a 'red tsunami'? MORE and George W. Bush.
Graham’s stand against segregation impressed a 12-year-old Bill Clinton, who recalled in his memoir “My Life,” that attending Graham’s 1958 Little Rock crusade “was the biggest thing that happened to me that year.”
At the time, Little Rock schools were closed in a last attempt to stop racial integration. Some were pressuring Graham to segregate his audiences by race but he refused. An impressed Clinton reflected in his memoirs that Graham “would cancel the crusade rather than preach to a segregated audience” because everyone deserves a chance to hear God’s word.
Clinton also recalled that Graham provided him encouragement while president, even in “my times of trial.”
In 1985 a 39 year-old George W. Bush recalled that his father, then Vice President George H.W. Bush, organized a dinner meeting with Billy Graham and dozens of Bush family members at their home in Maine.
“When Billy started answering questions that night in Maine, I was on my third glass of wine, after a couple of beers before dinner. Billy's message had overpowered the booze,” George W. Bush recalled in his memoir, Decision Points.
The next morning Bush and Graham took a walk, where Bush expressed his desire to become a better person.
“There's nothing wrong with using the Bible as a guide to self-improvement, he said. Jesus's life provides a powerful example for our own. But self-improvement is not really the point of the Bible. The center of Christianity is not the self. It is Christ,” Bush recalled.
A few weeks later, Graham sent Bush a Bible. “In his gentle, loving way, Billy began to deepen my shallow understanding of faith,” Bush wrote, explaining that he subsequently joined a Bible study and made some significant decisions about things in his life that were keeping him from being the husband, father, son and leader that he wanted to be.
“I could not have quit drinking without faith. I also don't think my faith would be as strong if I hadn't quit drinking,” Bush reflected of the major turning point in his life.
“There's no way to know where my life would have headed if I hadn't made the decision to quit drinking. But I am certain that I would not be recording these thoughts as a former governor of Texas and president of the United States,” Bush concluded.
Graham had planted the seed that took full root and sent Bush’s life on a different trajectory, ultimately leading him to make the decisions that developed him as a leader and led him to the presidency.
My life was affected by Graham and Bush both indirectly and directly. Even though my father’s father was an evangelical minister, my father credits a Graham crusade as spurring his personal faith. My father’s faith impacted my own.
Several years later, as a staffer for President George W. Bush, I was evacuated from the White House complex during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Three days later, I found myself still shocked but sitting in the far back side of the National Cathedral. Though I couldn’t see this national memorial service, I could hear the words of Graham and the other clergy who spoke.
“We come together today to affirm our conviction that God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religious or political background may be. . . . My prayer today is that we will feel the loving arms of God wrapped around us and that as we trust in Him we will know in our hearts that He will never forsake us,” Graham said, while wearing a black robe instead of his usual business suit.
At the end of that profound service as I was trying to leave my row, I got to the aisle only to realize that I couldn’t move because Billy Graham was blocking the aisle at my row. I was so close I could have literally touched the “hem of his garment,” to borrow the Biblical phrase.
What stood out in that moment was that the other religious leaders who’d spoken at that 9/11 memorial — the rabbi, the imam, and the cardinal — were surrounding the Graham, an evangelical protestant. He was clearly the center of their attention in that private moment.
It struck me that while they shared different doctrine and theology, they respected him. They were united in caring for the hurt and anguish of Americans in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
My faith meant a lot to me during that time. Similar to Graham’s 9-11 prayer, my mother shared with me Psalm 91:1. “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him."
Because of Billy Graham, many have trusted in God and Christ, including several of our presidents. Our nation will miss him.
Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian and author of The Burning of the White House.