Political crusader

I once covered a Billy Graham crusade unlike any other: Several hundred students began chanting "bull hockey" or words to that effect.

The crusade was held at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1970. And what prompted the vulgarism was the evangelist's fulsome praise of Richard Nixon, comparing the president to some of the great leaders of American history.

Nixon spoke at the crusade shortly after the U.S. incursion into Cambodia. College campuses had exploded in protest, including the killing of students at Kent State University by Ohio National Guard troops. The president wanted to show that he could appear on a college campus. He figured a Graham crusade in a storied football stadium in heavily Republican East Tennessee was a choice spot.

(When Nixon noted that, as a Whitaker College bench warmer, it was an honor to be standing on the 20-yard line of a legendary gridiron, the student protesters began chanting: "Push him back, push him back, way back.")

Graham's relationship with Nixon is at the center of Steven P. Miller's fascinating new book, "Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South." It is Miller's persuasive thesis that Graham helped make the Republican Party acceptable to middle-class Southerners. Graham used his enormous prestige to foster Nixon's political career, the first of a string of Republicans to carry the once solidly Democratic South.

Nixon's election in 1972 was a political watershed in the South, ushering in a generation of GOP control of most of the South. In North Carolina, Nixon's breakthrough elected Sen. Jesse Helms and Gov. Jim Holshouser, both the first Republicans to hold those offices in the 20th century.

"Although nominally a registered Democrat throughout his adult life," Miller writes, "he paralleled -- and in certain respects spoke for -- those white Southerners, many of them with moderate inclinations, who supported Eisenhower, backed Johnson, and then vote Republican for Nixon. Through his relationship with Nixon, in particular, Graham functioned as a political strategist and abetted the president's controversial, if not always successful, 'Southern strategy.'"

Graham, of course, is one of ours -- born in Charlotte and now living in Montreat, the grandson of Confederate veterans; his calls for accepting Christ delivered in a honeyed Tar Heel accent. His daughter Anne Graham Lotz is a prominent church leader in Raleigh. Graham's place on the national stage is unlike that of any other man of the cloth -- much more influential than political preachers such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.

"Since the early 1950s," Miller writes, "Graham has never relinquished his status as one of the most recognizable and respected of Americans, someone who has mingled comfortably with the powerful, while retaining the common touch."

A panel of historians, journalists and intellectuals rated Graham the fourth most influential Southerner of the 20th century behind Martin Luther King Jr., novelist William Faulkner and performer Elvis Presley.

Aside from saving souls, how did Graham use his immense prestige during a time when the South was severely tested as the era of Jim Crow was ending? Miller, a Vanderbilt-educated historian, argues that there were essentially two Billy Grahams. There was the Graham who integrated his crusades, who befriended civil rights leader King and who condemned the white violence.

To Dorothy Counts, the African-American student who was much abused during the integration of the Little Rock high school in 1957, Graham wrote: "Those cowardly whites against you will never prosper because they are unAmerican and unfit to lead. Be of good faith. God is not dead. He will see you through."

But there was also the Graham who was a voice for gradualism, who was opposed to the civil rights movement's use of civil disobedience, and who was a close ally of Nixon, who helped ride the Southern white backlash to the White House. Graham had always been drawn to political power, once declaring that if it had not been for his calling, he might have entered public service. In 1950 he was courted to run against liberal Sen. Frank Porter Graham, and his name was touted for president in 1964.

Friend to many

He befriended Democrats such as North Carolina governor Luther Hodges and Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. (Graham estimated he stayed overnight at the Johnson White House 26 times.) But he was at least as close to Republicans such as Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, the two George Bushes, the younger of whom credited Graham with helping turn his life around. There was even a much publicized visit to Montreat during the last campaign by GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

With the other presidents, he functioned as a White House chaplain. With Nixon he was a political adviser, offering memos on how to win the South, sitting in on meetings in choosing Nixon's vice presidential running mate in 1968 and appearing in public with Nixon three times during the final two months of that campaign.

In backing Nixon, Graham helped defeat Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a civil rights advocate, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a civil rights foe.

Graham's image was tarnished when Nixon fell during the Watergate scandal, and even more so in 2002 when White House tapes were released that showed Graham echoing Nixon's anti-Semitism.

Graham refused to believe someone that he viewed as intelligent and as ethically sound as Nixon could have participated in the Watergate scandal. After the scandal, Graham chalked up the affair to hubris.

"What caused Watergate?" Graham told a group of Baptist ministers two months before Nixon's resignation. "Sin. And there is a little bit of Watergate in all of us. So let's not go around being so self-righteous. I know bad people in both parties and all over the world."

After Nixon, Graham never again became so closely associated with politicians, although he maintained a friendship with both Bushes and Clinton, but curiously enough not with Jimmy Carter, a fellow Southern Baptist.

Graham was never part of the so-called Religious Right of the Jerry Falwells. Despite his start in revival tents, Graham was the religious voice of the big downtown Southern church, not the megachurches sprouting up in the suburbs.

Graham's voice was more akin to the gentler religiosity of former Sen. Elizabeth Dole than the fire-and-brimstone pronouncements of Helms.

Although he remains a registered Democrat, Graham helped pave the way for the Sun Belt South -- the color-blind rhetoric of mainstream conservatism and the political realignment in favor of the Republicans.

Miller is a valuable and sophisticated guide to how Graham -- a man interested in both saving souls and playing golf with presidents -- helped shape today's South.