Evangelist Billy Graham has rubbed elbows with celebrities ranging from presidents to journalists to musicians. In “Billy Graham & Me,” a new book in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” franchise that was released Feb. 12, 101 people who have met Graham on the public stage share their private memories of the 94-year-old preacher.
Here are excerpts from 12 of them:
Former President George H.W. Bush
Billy came to stay with Barbara and me at the White House on the eve of the air war against Iraq. I told him what I was then having to do – our diplomacy and our quest for a peaceful solution having failed. I told him when the first cruise missiles would hit Baghdad, and we watched in wonder as the war to liberate Kuwait began. Just the three of us were there.
Billy said a little prayer for our troops and for the innocents who might be killed. The next day we attended a church service at Fort Meade. His very presence brought great comfort to the people in uniform who were praying at that special service.
I cannot begin to tell what Billy’s presence and his faith meant to me as President and as Commander in Chief. His own beliefs and abiding faith gave me great strength.
Former President Bill Clinton, recalling Graham’s 1959 crusade in Little Rock, Ark.
The crusade happened as Billy wanted it, with tens of thousands of people, black and white, pouring into the stadium where the Arkansas Razorbacks played. When Billy finished preaching and issued the call, inviting us to rededicate our lives to Christ, thousands, black and white together, some smiling, some crying, went down to the field to answer the call. It was a moment in Arkansas history after which nothing would be quite the same for those who were there and those who knew the stand Billy had taken. And Billy didn’t have to preach one word about integrating the schools. All he had to speak was God’s Word to all God’s children. It may seem easy now, but back then, fifty years ago, it was an act of moral courage and deep faith.
Former CNN talk show host Larry King
The unhappiest and saddest moment for me was when I confronted him over the anti-Semitic conversation he had with President Nixon that was uncovered after the White House tapes were released. Nixon said, “Well, you know, the Jews…” and Billy said, “Yes…” I asked him about that, and he said that the toughest thing, if you were in a room with a president, and a president said something, is to take issue with him. So you either said yes or you nodded your head or suchlike. I didn’t agree with Billy on this. For me, you don’t say yes. I wouldn’t have said yes. That disappointed me.
RNS photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
Billy Graham, right, during an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 1994.
Southern Baptist public policy ethicist Richard Land
In terms of Evangelical Christianity reengaging the culture, Billy Graham is the man who really did it, on a mass level. And he gave us, the Evangelicals, both the model for how to do it and the confidence with which to do it. There would not have been a modern evangelical movement without him. And I love the guy. He was a hero to me in my boyhood, and he remains a hero to me today.
Former dc Talk frontman Toby McKeehan (TobyMac) on playing at a 1994 Graham crusade in Cleveland
We were asked to meet with Dr. Graham and his wife Ruth at their small home in the North Carolina mountains. I think they wanted to get to know our hearts. When we arrived, we were invited to sit down, and we all started talking. Then something happened that I’ll never forget. Dr. Graham asked us if we wanted something to drink. He actually went to the kitchen and brought us two Cokes and a glass of water on a tray. That servant’s heart at work even in his home impressed me deeply.
Billy told us that we were his translators for the next generation, helping put the gospel message into a language they could understand. I saw that he cared enough for the world’s youth to risk the possibility that half his people might not like us joining him on stage. However, for Billy Graham, reaching young people was worth the risk. To me, that showed who he was.
Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)
I gave him a small Bible once. It was very small, one you could put in your pocket. I saw him many years later toward the end of his career of actively holding crusades around the country. It was during a crusade at the big Coliseum in Atlanta, and I was up on the stage with him and six or eight other people. I said “hello” but hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to him. But he pulled that Bible out in front of thousands and thousands of people and said that he had gotten it as a gift from me, and he’d had it with him in his pocket ever since. That was an amazing memory, especially since I’d given him the Bible at least five or six years before. His authenticity and sincerity shines through. People realize it instinctively. That distinguished him from any preacher I know of in that generation who was in the public limelight.
CNN’s HLN News Anchor Kyra Phillips
I looked at this legendary man of unwavering faith and said, “Reverend Graham, I’m a little overwhelmed right now. It took so much to get here. I didn’t think you would grant me this interview. I was told it wasn’t going to happen. Then, I was told it was on. I’m not quite sure which way is up and which way is down at the moment. Could we just pray?” He looked at me like a caring father. This man, who over six decades counseled presidents and gave millions of Americans hope for a better life through faith, smiled at me and simply said, “Well, of course.” Then he held my hand and we bowed our heads. We prayed for a few minutes, then opened our eyes. I sat back. I felt so at peace, so calm, and so relaxed. I never once looked down at my notes. We had an amazing conversation, one of the most memorable and beautiful moments I have had in my career.
Former CBS Evening News Anchor Dan Rather
I put it to him that the Soviet Union was a godless country; the godless government permeated society all the way down from top to bottom. “To whom are you going to preach?” I asked.
I had been to the Soviet Union many times, and I was trying somewhat aggressively to point out to the Reverend Graham that in the Soviet Union the only people who went to church were very old women in their late eighties or their nineties. The reason was that there were communist government apparatchiks standing in the church taking down the names of people who went, so nobody would go to church because they didn’t want their names on a list.
After I made this point, Billy Graham replied, “What you don’t understand is that below the surface, there are a lot of religious people, and they are afraid to come out, they won’t risk coming out, but in effect, Dan, there are many, many, quiet, secret Christians, far more than you can imagine.”
I didn’t believe this at the time of the interview. But Billy Graham went ahead and visited Russia in 1982, and then again in 1984 and 1988, and on each occasion he preached to overflowing crowds. It turned out that he had been right all along, and I was wrong. He understood the basic religiosity of people even when their religious instincts had long been repressed.
Christian Broadcasting Network Founder Pat Robertson
I’ve been with him on a group prayer retreat. He’s just a humble man under God. He puts on no airs or pretense, none of the “flash and dash.” He lives very simply. He once told me he had been offered an airplane – someone wanted to give him one, but he wouldn’t accept it. He felt that he should not have luxury for himself. People in his kind of position are offered everything, and he said no.
Newsboys lead singer Michael Tait
He said, “I have a story for you, Michael. Last night President Obama was sitting in the chair you are sitting in.”
I was blown away. “What was he doing here, Billy?” I asked. (I was finally calling him Billy!)
“Well, he wanted to come and see me. He called from the Oval Office. The Secret Service was all around, you know, but he walked in by himself, sat down there, and we spent half an hour together.”
“What did you talk about?”
“We talked about the country, and this, that, and the other.”
“Do you think he’s a believer?”
“Well, I believe the man knows the Lord. We prayed together, and before he left, he asked me if he could pray.”
And Billy was impressed with the depth of the president’s prayer.
Sojourners Founder Jim Wallis, recalling Graham admitting to being nervous in addressing Harvard students in 1999
Billy said, “Jim, I’m really nervous tonight.”
“Why in the world would you be nervous?” I replied.
“I feel very weak physically, and am not sure if I will be effective answering questions from these Harvard students.”
At that moment, I had such a feeling of great warmth for him. “Billy, they slept overnight on the sidewalk to hear you preach,” I said. “The room is full. They’re not here to eat your lunch. They’re here because they want to tell their grandchildren they were in the same room as Billy Graham.”
His vulnerability, his humanity, was so much in evidence in that moment, and I had the chance to do what many of us have known with our aging parents – to give something back to them. I said, “I’ll be sitting right in the front row, and I’ll be praying for you the whole time. So if you get nervous, just look down and you’ll see me there praying for you. They’re here to hear from you. Just speak from your heart, from your soul, and they’re gonna love it.”
He gave me a hug and he went up to the podium, and a couple of times as he was speaking he looked down at me, and I put my head down and prayed for him.
Of course, despite his doubts, Billy gave an incredibly brilliant, statesmanlike talk about faith and public life.
Saddleback Church Founder Rick Warren
President Obama asked me to pray the invocation at his inauguration, so I promptly went out and bought a nice hat from a store in West Hollywood. But I left it in a hotel room a few days later and it was stolen. I was disappointed, but had no time to buy another.
To this day, I still don’t know how Billy found out about my hat loss. But about a week later, an unexpected package arrived at my home. Inside, carefully wrapped, was a beautiful black Homburg hat from Billy Graham! It was the hat Billy had worn at the inaugurations where he’d prayed! Attached was this note: “It’s your turn, Rick. It’s your hour. This is your hat now.” Tears filled my eyes. Once again I saw the greatness of my mentor, his deep love for others, and his encouraging heart. I wore Billy’s hat when I prayed on the Capitol steps at that 2009 inauguration. Billy was unable to attend, but once again, his influence was present.