President Harry Truman was furious. Billy Graham had revealed the content of their private conversation to the media, going so far as to perform a “reenactment” of their prayer time on the White House lawn at the media’s request. It was the first time Truman had invited Graham to the White House, and it would be the last.
Earlier that day, Truman had sought Graham’s counsel on calming public hysteria around the Korean War effort. The meeting had gone well, according to Graham. They even discussed creating a National Day of Prayer, something Truman would implement two years later. But Graham’s unpolished enthusiasm and lack of experience with public officials cost him the ear of the President that Friday in 1950 and almost cost him his reputation altogether.
Calling the evangelist a fake, the President harshly reprimanded him. “All he’s interested in is getting his name in the newspaper,” Truman said of Graham. He did not speak to him again for years after that.
Graham’s meeting with Truman was the first of many encounters with American leaders over a span of more than 50 years. His blazing misstep with Truman, however, was a hard lesson he never forgot: When the world is watching, trust between a president and his spiritual advisors becomes even more fragile.
Billy Graham’s Mutual Respect
For Graham, presidential relationships were grounded in mutual respect. After his mishap with Truman, he never shared the details of private meetings he held with public leaders.
Though he did publicly call out President Lyndon B. Johnson on a position during one of his Crusade meetings (as Graham details in his autobiography), they became close during Johnson’s time in office. Graham knew Johnson to be a spiritual man who attended church sometimes two or three times a week. He recalled Johnson’s words at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1964, about his need for the strength and support of earnest and frequent prayer, commenting that “those were not the words of a desperate man on a sinking ship. They revealed faith in a Friend who could help.”
At the same time, Graham knew that Johnson was “not a saint”—in fact, according to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, Johnson was known to have had multiple affairs, even claiming at one time, “I have had more women by accident than John F. Kennedy has had on purpose.” Graham was not afraid to confront the President on his behavior, either.
“When I spoke warmly about his spiritual convictions, I was not forgetting his inconsistencies and transgressions,” Graham said. “Did he intimidate me? Maybe just the opposite: I think I intimidated him a little. He liked having an old-fashioned Baptist preacher around for personal as well as political reasons, but I did not avoid taking issue with him or probing his soul whenever I thought it necessary.”
Billy Graham’s son Franklin, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and of Samaritan’s Purse, said his father was willing to meet with many of the presidents in order to share the gospel, not just within the Oval Office but also with White House staffers whom he came in contact with at those meetings. However, Franklin Graham admits that sometimes political leaders can exploit their relationships with pastors and evangelists for political gain. In fact, Franklin Graham wonders if his father’s popularity with presidents didn’t sometimes hinge on his popularity with the people.