In January, 1974, the nation was in turmoil. Vice President Agnew had resigned in disgrace and, as Watergate worsened, President Nixon would resign in seven months.
I was national correspondent for the Globe, and an editor suggested an interview with the Rev. Billy Graham. It had an uncomfortable “gotcha” element — ask, in light of the corruption, what Graham now thought of his pal Nixon.
Graham invited me to his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and for 90 minutes we met for what turned out to be less an interview and more a friendly discussion about religion and politics. Graham was gracious, and to my surprise, repentant as we faced one another across a coffee table on which we’d placed the tools of our trade — for him a Bible, for me a tape recorder.
Delaying the confrontation, I told a light story about a night in 1950, when Graham turned Boston Garden into a tabernacle and, according to news reports, mesmerized his congregation of 16,000 with a declaration that they’d burn in hell unless they turned to Christ.
Persuaded by the discomforts of hell, 3000 people chose the second option and assembled in front of Graham to pledge to Christ.
As his sermon ended, from under stage there emerged a phalanx of young apostles who headed up the aisles, urging congregants to be saved by Christ.
Seated in front was Globe reporter Ian Menzies, who knew his obligation to objectivity, and when an evangelist tugged his sleeve and said, “Come up and be saved by Jesus,” Menzies said, “I can’t. I work for the Globe.”
For Graham, 1973 was embarrassing, because Nixon was exposed as less than the deeply religious president he pretended to be.
Early, I posed a soft question about Watergate. Graham looked surprised. “I hope they told you,” he said, apologetically, “no questions on Watergate.”
I was stunned. I now had an hour with the most influential evangelist of the 20th century and was forbidden to ask about the topic of most interest.
Fortunately, I had done lots of research, and from notes, I culled something Graham had preached at Boston Garden, when he warned women not to nag their husbands, admonished them to keep their homes clean, and advised them to read a lot to keep up with their husbands.
“I hate to remind you of this,” I said, “but you advised wives to wear enough makeup to be pretty, but not so much that their husbands would notice, and that, according to the Bible, husbands were God’s head of households and wives should be submissive.”
Graham grimaced, sipped his black coffee, and allowed as how he’d probably misinterpreted the Bible.
I wondered if I’d heard him correctly.
“My views have changed. We’ve seen cultural changes. I’m convinced the biblical position is right, if properly understood, but I didn’t interpret it right. I believe the biblical position is that husband and wife are equal, but in organization of the home, the husband is the head.”
“That sounds contradictory,” I said.
“Well, the woman is also the head in certain areas, and there’s equal responsibility. It’s like one business executive is responsible in one area, and another in another area. Both are equal vice-presidents, but with different functions.”
Despite Graham’s determination to avoid Watergate, the scandal troubled him so deeply that he brought it up himself.
“I don’t know how Mr. Nixon got caught in this buzz saw. I’m not sure Nixon knows the whole story.”
Graham had been acquainted with five presidents, and although politics entwined his ministry, he came to believe the mingling was a mistake.
“I wish I had never indicated who I was for. I’ve been around enough leaders, read enough books, and talked to enough people to realize the issues are complicated. It’s not as simple as I thought in Boston in 1950.”
There were other blunders to which he confessed. About sexual mores, he said he was less vehement.
“Of Ten Commandments, only one has to do with sex, and two — Thou shalt not steal and Thou shalt not covet — two are about economics.
“I’ve also learned that race and housing are moral problems. You cannot have the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer.”
Although he disdained mixing politics and religion, he retained a common evangelical theme that God, somehow, manipulates political events to send us messages about our behavior.
“Vietnam and Watergate were judgments by god that if we don’t heed, it’s going to get worse. God, in great love, is speaking to this country, saying ‘Turn around before it’s too late.’ But if we continue . . . ”
Three decades later, when Nixon’s White House tapes were released, I was horrified to read that a sycophantic Graham did not dispute Nixon’s contention that liberal Jews controlled the media and were responsible for pornography.
“A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine,” Graham said on the tapes. “They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.”
He met with Jewish leaders to apologize, but that remark remains, perhaps, his most shameful moment.
He paused, pensively. “I’m not speaking of sex. That would have been my emphasis 25 years ago, not now.”
When it was time to leave, realizing I had no airline reservation, he retrieved a directory from his desk, then dialed an airline to secure a seat for me.
The story ran in the Globe and in newspapers across the country. I downplayed Graham’s predictable sentiments about Watergate and wrote in detail that Graham had a strength of character — one rare in politics and religion today — a commitment to truth as he saw it and a courage to admit when he was wrong.
I worried he’d think I had entrapped him, but a letter arrived from North Carolina in which he said that he had enjoyed our time, and that he was grateful to me for giving him the opportunity to set the record straight.
At his door, I asked a final question. “Given that one’s obituary sums up life in the first paragraph, what did he want his to say?”
He held our handshake. “Let’s see, I’d like it to say: ‘Billy Graham, 101 years old, died yesterday and went to heaven.’ ”
Having died this week at 99, Graham almost reached that first goal. Because of his goodness, and in spite of his failings, I hope he’s made it to the second.
Jack Thomas was a writer and editor at the Boston Globe for more than 40 years.