Partly, he was referring to private conversations with certain presidents of both parties, when he had informally discussed political issues and strategy with them. Mainly, though, he had Richard Nixon and the Watergate tapes in mind.
“The Dick Nixon I knew was not the Nixon I heard on those tapes,” Graham declared to this reporter as Watergate unraveled.
Worse, Graham and the nation were shocked to hear what he himself had said on the tapes in a 1972 conversation at the White House with Nixon and his top aide, H.R. Haldeman.
Background: Earlier, New York Times veteran reporter McCandlish Phillips, an evangelical, had published The Bible, the Supernatural, and the Jews (Bethany House 1970). The book said Jews were God’s “chosen people” but lamented how many modern-day Jews had left God out of their lives. Phillips wrote that book out of his love and burden for young Jews, and cited many examples of positive Jewish influence in America, but also noted that some Jewish publishers put out pornography.
Graham was familiar with the book. He, too, was pro-Israel and counted some Jewish religious and business leaders as friends.
At the 1972 White House meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of Jewish influence in America. Graham spoke of a Jewish connection to pornography publishing. “This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” the evangelist warned Nixon. The talk descended downhill from there. Graham was unaware that presidential conversations were being taped.
When Haldeman revealed the contents of the conversation in the publication of his diaries 22 years later, in 1994, Graham exclaimed, “Those are not my words!” He said he only ever spoke positively about the Jewish people. But in 2002, after the tapes became public, he was shocked at hearing his own words. Devastated, and fearful he had turned off Jewish friends and had harmed the church, he apologized in public and said he had no memory of saying such things 30 years earlier.
After an ensuing storm of criticism subsided, most people seemed inclined to accept his apology and move on. It was the closest he had ever come to scandal that could have tarnished all he had stood for.
Even some of the harshest liberal critics of his theological views in the past are taking a more measured second look at him, or at least the effects of his preaching. In The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest Evangelist (Westminster John Knox, 2008), editor Michael Long of Elizabethtown (Pa.) College wrote:
“In a windstorm of changing values and shifting circumstances, Graham is the still point in the American moral universe. He has maintained for six decades the same message, the same seemingly untroubled convictions, the same unblemished ethical record. In an age of anxiety, he calms the national soul.”
In the same book, Harvey Cox, well-known Harvard liberal religion professor, wrote that “Billy Graham’s ample vision of Christian witness” represented “the kind of vision we desperately need in a Christian world still agonizing—after half a century of official ecumenism—with the painful laceration of distrust and disdain.”
Many evangelicals likely would find common cause with the late Charles Colson, former Nixon legal counsel and convicted Watergate figure who spent time in a federal prison and later founded Prison Fellowship. In Billy Graham: A Tribute from Friends (Warner Faith, 2002) by Vernon K. McLellan, Colson (who died in 2012) wrote:
“It turns out the man who witnessed to me, Tom Phillips, then the president of the Raytheon company, had been converted at a Billy Graham Crusade at Madison Square in New York City in 1968. How unlikely are God’s ways. Here was the head of one of the largest corporations in America going forward with a stream of repentant sinners and then returning to his business where four years after I left the White House, I returned to be his Washington counsel. Phillips shared his faith with me at the darkest moment in my life. And from that encounter has come my experience in prison and then the launching of a ministry that is now active in 88 countries, reaching into literally thousands of prisons, touching countless hundreds of thousands of lives. This is how the gospel spreads: Graham to Phillips to Colson.”
And so the legacy lives on.