Great Power or Great Responsibility?

So many people want to be president. Perhaps it would do them some good to remember comments by America’s first three presidents.

When Washington was elected to the presidency, he wrote to Henry Knox:

My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.

Washington understood the immense responsibility that would rest upon him.

When John Adams succeeded him eight years later, as he and Washington were leaving the scene of his inauguration, he later wrote:

Methought I heard him think, “Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!”

Adams had reason to be concerned. Imagine what it would be like having to be Washington’s successor, having to follow the man considered to be the Father of the Country. Regardless of Adams’s many accomplishments, he didn’t measure up to Washington in the eyes of the nation. Certain congressmen and senators, in a rather direct display of disrespect, even referred to him as “His Rotundity.”

Then there was Jefferson. He added the Louisiana Territory to the country, thus doubling its size. He sent out the Lewis and Clark expedition to see what he had bought. He was reelected easily. Yet, at the end of his second term, when he signed a bill stopping all shipping (in order to avoid a European war), he alienated all of the New England states, which made their living by that very shipping. The historian Paul Johnson comments that Jefferson left office a beaten man. Jefferson said:

Oh for the day when I shall be withdrawn from [office] ; when I shall have leisure to enjoy my family, my friends, my farm and books!

Too many individuals seek what they think will be greater power, only to come to the realization that the responsibilities can be overwhelming. I prefer to entrust power and authority to those who don’t want it so badly. Perhaps they will handle it more wisely.

I first posted this in January 2009. The message is still relevant nine years later.

Graham & His Presidents

Historians have a unique experience when they do research into individuals. Even though I have never met most of the people I’ve researched, I come away with the sensation that I know them anyway.

My master’s thesis was on Yale president (and clergyman) Timothy Dwight and American geographer (and clergyman) Jedidiah Morse, the latter being the father of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame.

My doctoral dissertation was on Noah Webster, the premier educator of early America and the compiler of America’s first dictionary, which bears his name.

Reading everything I can get my hands on that relates to Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and C. S. Lewis has been an ongoing joy.

I can testify the same about Billy Graham, since I’ve not only researched at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, but also have looked into his correspondence and relationships with all the post-WWII presidents.

Graham built a reputation as a friend and counselor for many of these presidents, although his first attempt was a little rocky. He received an invitation to speak with Harry Truman in the Oval Office. He prayed with Truman at the end of the meeting. When he and his associates emerged from the White House, reporters wanted him to reenact that prayer. He obliged.

Although Graham was undoubtedly sincere in his action, Truman was incensed that something private would be made into a public spectacle. Graham, young and inexperienced in dealing with the media, learned a valuable lesson that day.

The young evangelist made a connection with a much older man, Dwight Eisenhower, when Truman left office. In one way, it’s rather amazing that Eisenhower, the general who successfully conducted the D-Day invasion, would find a spiritual guide in such a young man. Yet he asked Graham for suggestions of Biblical passages to use in his first inaugural.

As Eisenhower lay in bed at Walter Reed hospital, knowing he was going to die soon, he asked Graham to come see him and tell him one more time how to make sure he was ready to meet the Lord. If not for Graham, Eisenhower might never have made his peace with God.

Graham didn’t know Kennedy that well, but at the latter’s urging, they met after the election and before the inauguration, because Kennedy, as the nation’s first Catholic president, sought to show that the leading evangelical Protestant voice was not opposed to his presidency.

It’s noteworthy that at a time when many Protestants were concerned about having a Catholic for president that Graham accepted the invitation and was willing to stand publicly with Kennedy. He wanted to help heal that division between Christian denominations.

What may not be as well known is that Graham, in November of 1963, had a strong urge to call Kennedy and tell him the Lord had impressed upon him that the upcoming trip to Dallas might be dangerous. He never reached Kennedy; others in the administration put him off. We all know what happened next.

Lyndon Johnson was a profane man with whom one might think Graham would want nothing to do, but that was not the case. The two developed a close friendship, and Graham even got involved to some extent in some of LBJ’s initiatives on racial reconciliation and other policy issues.

Interestingly, LBJ tried to convince Graham to run for president. He demurred, knowing that God had given him a different calling. In my opinion, after reading through quite a bit of material on their relationship, I see LBJ wanting Graham to be close to him because he suffered a deep insecurity about his own spiritual state—an insecurity that he definitely should have had, given his low standard of morality. Perhaps he perceived Graham to be his “security blanket,” spiritually speaking.

In the public mind, Graham is most often associated with Nixon. It’s true that they were very close. It was during Nixon’s presidency that Sunday morning services were arranged at the White House, and Graham spoke at many of them. Although he never officially endorsed any president, there was little doubt that he supported Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Then came Watergate. When the tapes revealed language from Nixon that Graham had never heard him use in his presence, he was deeply disturbed. On Nixon’s part, because he didn’t want the controversy swirling around him to impugn Graham’s ministry, he conscientiously avoided meeting with Graham once the Watergate investigation went into high gear.

What’s most touching, to me, is that nothing Nixon did pushed Graham away from him. Even in the disgrace of resignation from the presidency, Graham remained his friend and spiritual advisor. He was not seeking power with the high and mighty; he simply wanted to share God’s love with them. He was the friend of presidents even when they were no longer in office and had nothing to offer.

His close brush with a possible taint on his ministry led Graham to rethink his associations with presidents. It’s not that he sought to distance himself spiritually, but he never again wanted to be so public in his relationships with them that the ministry would be discredited.

So when Ford took over from Nixon, while he did speak with the new president on occasions, he deliberately took a step back from a too-public connection.

The same is true of his relationship with Carter. Prior to his presidency, Carter had even shared the stage with Graham in Georgia at one of his crusades.

Yet, the relationship was never very close. Carter considered himself his own spiritual advisor, some would say. He didn’t reach out much to Graham during his tenure in office.

Ronald Reagan and Graham had been friends for a couple of decades before Reagan won the presidency, so the link between them already was firmly established. According to some sources, Reagan was the president Graham was closest to, but, in the wake of Watergate, Graham was intent on keeping their communication as private as possible.

That’s kind of a frustration for a historian like me. Whereas I found a lot of correspondence between Graham and LBJ and Nixon, the Reagan Library yielded far less.

Reagan’s esteem for Graham was shown in his decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I interviewed Reagan’s pastor, Donn Moomaw, back in 2014, he lent me this photo that I downloaded into my own files. I’ll always appreciate his willingness to do that.

George Bush the elder also had a long-standing friendship with Graham, to the point that he invited him to the Bush compound in Maine annually. He wanted his family to hear from Graham on spiritual matters. His initial idea was to ask Graham to speak to them—like a sermon—but Graham instead just opened it up each year to questions, which was a much more personable approach.

It was on one of those occasions that a walk along the beach with George Bush the younger led to his commitment to follow the Lord.

Have I omitted anyone? Oh, yes, there was another one.

This is further evidence that Graham was willing to be a friend to anyone occupying the highest office in the land.

I hope this travelogue through the history of Billy Graham’s relationships and connections with presidents has been worthwhile for those of you who made it through this entire blog.

I thank God for using this man in our nation’s history. May many more rise up and be His spokesmen for truth.

Billy Graham’s Coronation Day

Billy Graham was ready to go. He had been ready for many years. Even though his passing was not a shock—after all, he was 99—just the fact of his death makes the world stop for a moment and consider a man who was faithful to His Savior and who made an enormous impact for Him.

I remember watching Graham crusades on television when I was a teenager. I read a number of his books at that relatively young age. I guess I wasn’t your typical teen.

As time went on, the Lord directed me to many other Christian writers, speakers, and spiritual guides, but I will always be grateful that Graham was the one who first got my attention.

In my book on C. S. Lewis, I mention the one time these two men met. Lewis had this to say afterwards:

I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Graham once. We had dinner together during his visit to Cambridge University in 1955. I thought he was a very modest and a very sensible man, and I liked him very much indeed.

The Oxford/Cambridge intellectual having a meeting of the minds and hearts over dinner with a Baptist revivalist. Why did that work? Both believed genuinely in what Lewis called “mere Christianity.” They shared the same Savior and recognized that in each other.

Four years ago, during my sabbatical, I not only researched and wrote a book on Lewis but I began work with a colleague on another book that aims to analyze spiritual advisors to presidents post-WWII. Graham naturally figures prominently, as he was the only Christian leader/pastor who knew each president personally, starting with Eisenhower.

It was a joyful experience going to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College to research him. Then I did the same at six presidential libraries. Graham’s commitment to offering spiritual counsel to any president who asked, regardless of the label of Republican or Democrat, is a lesson to all of us today.

Our book is still in the works, with a great hope that it may be picked up by a publisher who sees its value. Yesterday, we were interviewed about Graham and the proposed book by a local television news outlet. We were glad for the opportunity to showcase what Graham has meant to so many.

While it may be a cliché among Christians, it is nonetheless true that yesterday was Billy Graham’s Coronation Day. He is now in the presence of the Lord he served for most of those 99 years. May his life inspire the rest of us to be just as faithful.

Presidential Greatness: A List to Ponder

Presidents Day apparently was a prime time to release the new rankings of presidential greatness. Who is judging which president is greater than another, you may ask. The answer: 170 members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

You may ask further: what are the political leanings of these 170 members? The answer with respect to political party: 57.2% of respondents were Democrats, while 12.7% were Republicans, 27.1% were Independents, and 3% selected Other as their option.

The other question asked was whether they considered themselves liberal or conservative. Here’s that breakdown: 32.5% consider themselves ideologically liberal, while 25.9% consider themselves somewhat liberal, and 24.1% consider themselves moderate. Only 5.4% consider themselves ideologically conservative, while 12% say they are somewhat conservative.

In my experience, those who call themselves somewhat liberal are being too modest; they are usually quite liberal but don’t like to be labeled as such. If I’m correct, that would put the ideologically liberal as well over half the respondents while conservatives overall top out at just under 18%.

Gosh, I wonder if that skewed the results of this survey?

To be fair, I think there were some solid selections of greatness. For instance, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington come in as #1 and #2, respectively. Given Lincoln’s gargantuan task of navigating a civil war and Washington’s precedent-setting tenure as our first president (and giving honor and dignity to the office), I take no issue with those choices.

But, as is always the case with a liberal-dominated group, we find FDR voted in as the third-greatest president in American history. This is the man who tossed aside the Constitution, who allowed the federal government to dictate an ever-higher portion of each individual’s life, and who put into place policies that extended the Great Depression for an entire decade.

Sorry, but that’s not my idea of greatness.

FDR’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, comes in fourth, probably because he began the movement toward more “progressive” policies and even ran for president later on the ticket of the newly formed Progressive Party. Now, there are things I like about TR as well, but not those.

The #5 spot went to Thomas Jefferson. I’m currently teaching a course on the Early Republic and if you were to ask my students their view of Jefferson now, you probably wouldn’t get too many superlatives. He did his best to undermine both Washington and John Adams. He thought the French Revolution was a wonderful event. He signed an embargo act that practically froze all American commerce and his presidency ended with a whimper, not a bang.

Ah, but the Declaration of Independence makes up for all of that, I guess.

I admit to being pleased, and somewhat surprised, to see Reagan included in the top ten, coming in at #9. What was less surprising was to see Obama just ahead of him at #8. Let’s see now: one president revived the economy and was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union; the other reigned over an economy in the doldrums, attempted to take over the entire healthcare industry, and apologized the world over for America even existing.

Can you tell I disagree with that ranking?

LBJ comes in at #10, just behind Reagan. He only put FDR’s New Deal on steroids with his Great Society. And I don’t think we can call his Vietnam policy a sterling success.

I won’t try to go through the whole list, but here are some more thoughts as I look over it.

Woodrow Wilson ahead of James Madison? Really? Bill Clinton fell from #8 to #13 in this new ranking—a nice trend. Keep it going. Grover Cleveland all the way down at #24? I guess that’s what happens when someone believes in reining in government spending and warns against big-government paternalism.

Jimmy Carter at #26 ahead of Calvin Coolidge at #28? Give me a break. Why is Carter so high comparatively? His presidency was a near-total bust. Coolidge had integrity and presided over a robust economy. But he was Coolidge, you know, and that’s all it takes for a liberal-dominated voter pool.

Filling out the bottom of the list were some of the perennials: Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison (hey, give the guy a break; he was president for only one month), and James Buchanan.

Oh, I almost forgot. At the very bottom is the name Donald Trump. Now, that’s hardly fair with only one year under his belt. Even though I’m a great critic of Trump’s character, etc., I would hardly place him below some of those perennials noted above. At least not yet. Let’s see how this plays out over the next three years.

Lists like these are interesting, but you always need to know who the respondents are. A liberal-dominated electorate will always give a decided nod to those who have expanded government power.