the preacher to the presidents
Gibbs has written more than 100 cover stories for Time magazine, where she
serves as editor at large. Her compelling writing style in narrative pieces
such as "The Abortion Campaign You Never Hear About" and "Being Thirteen:
What's on Their Minds?" routinely turns complex issues of the day into
understandable must-read instructional experiences.
a 22-year career, Gibbs, 47, has devoted most of her writing time to politics
and major news events. Her book, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham
in the White House, written with Michael Duffy — another 22-year Time veteran — came out in August. The authors spent nearly three years
working on the fascinating behind-the-scenes book, each taking only a
three-month leave while continuing their magazine duties.
recently talked to TPE News Editor John W. Kennedy.
How did you simultaneously write a 350-page book while working full-time for
In reporting and writing the book, Michael Duffy and I came across many
discoveries that turned into magazine stories. When Gerald Ford died, for
instance, we had learned quite a bit that we didn't know about his spiritual
life. We were able to write a story called "The Other Born-Again President?"
about how he balanced faith and politics. Everyone of course thinks of Jimmy
Carter. The article got an enormous response because it was an aspect of
President Ford that people had not known. These types of surprises kept happening
along the way.
How many people did you interview for the book?
Many dozens. Our doing it really depended on Mr. Graham being willing to talk
to us. The people around him are understandably protective of his time and
energy because he is quite frail. He isn't doing interviews anymore, and they
are protective of his reputation and the legacy he will have. They were aware this
was the opportunity while he was still alive to reflect on the extraordinary
life he lived and the lives he touched.
they became comfortable trusting us with his stories, all the former living
presidents and so many of their aides and family members agreed to talk to us.
This story — how one man ended up ministering to every president
back to the Second World War — had never been told.
Why did Billy Graham give access to you in particular?
It helped that we were from Time magazine. Mr. Graham credited founder Henry
Luce with playing a significant part in the growth of his ministry. We went to
Mr. Graham's office in North Carolina, and he had three covers of Time framed
on his wall, including a cover story I wrote in 1993.
The book has been well received.
We've been gratified and a little surprised. We felt with a book about the
intersection of religion and politics there would be people on both sides of
our often-polarized political debate who would take issue with us for being too
hard or too easy on Mr. Graham. We tried hard to be fair.
first time we sat down with Mr. Graham, he said, "I hope you will tell the good
and the bad." I found that an amazing instruction and liberating. He wasn't
looking to airbrush his history.
What surprised you most in your research?
Virtually every president was raised in a more religious house than we
realized, except for Jimmy Carter, whose identity was already that of a Sunday
School teacher. We did not know about Harry Truman's personal faith; we did not
know that Dwight Eisenhower was raised by parents who became Jehovah's
Witnesses; we did not know how much Lyndon Johnson wrestled with his faith; we
did not know how devout Richard Nixon's Quaker mother was. The stories of the
strong religious foundations these presidents had, especially because of their
mothers, went on and on.
we discovered the private nature of the presidency. When a candidate becomes
Mr. President, all his relationships change. It's very hard for a president to
show doubts, to be able to ask stupid questions, to find someone to really talk
to. In a remarkable way, Graham created a safe place where presidents could
talk about basic questions and not have to worry about reading it the next day
in the newspapers.
Some evangelicals criticized Billy Graham for not preaching against abortion
Rev. Graham was criticized for not being tough enough on presidents when he had
this extraordinary access to them — that he didn't confront them about
the war, civil rights, abortion, whatever concerns the left and the right had.
They wanted someone with Graham's back door pass to be speaking the truth to
power. This wasn't the way he saw the role.
In the book you show how he felt his anti-communism campaign in the 1950s
jeopardized the gospel.
He said to us that he was so caught up in anti-communism it distracted him from
the gospel. As his ministry went on, he became wary of speaking out on a topic
that would detract from the gospel. He really worked hard to keep his message
all about Jesus, not the policies the liberals wanted him to be speaking about
in the '60s and '70s or the conservatives in the '80s and '90s.
The evangelist learned lessons about being too close to power when he initially
backed Johnson on the Vietnam War and Nixon on Watergate.
He did have a weakness for politics. Certainly after Nixon he became aware of
the damage it could do to the ministry. He became much more disciplined about
not being identified with one party or the other.
though he was close friends with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when Bill
Clinton wanted him to pray at his inauguration he said, "I will be there. The
Bible tells us to pray for those in authority." He got all sorts of critical
letters asking, "How can you endorse a president who endorses abortion?" His
attitude was, I will pray for any president. Those in power need prayer.
The book mentions how he could talk to Bill Clinton as no one else could.
That's a remarkable friendship. Graham was a childhood hero of Bill Clinton,
who secretly tithed to Billy Graham's crusades as a teenager. His idea of a
cool date when he and Hillary were in law school was to go hear a Graham
crusade. When he was governor of Arkansas, Clinton sought him out to hold a
crusade in the state. So when Clinton reached the White House, he already had a
fully established friendship with Graham.
had no idea how many of these relationships — the Johnsons, the
Reagans, the Bushes — went back to the '50s, long before they were
near the White House.
Do you have a faith background?
I was raised a Presbyterian, and was a deacon and elder at New York's Fifth
Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
How did you get started in the business?
I was in graduate school in England, sending off letters to Time and Newsweek
offering to empty the wastebaskets. It took about a year after I got back into
the country to get Time to hire me as a part-time fact-checker. I made friends
with colleagues who were enormously generous with their time in showing me the
ropes. I got a sense of what makes a good story and how to approach it. Then I
became a writer.
What are your favorite stories to write?
I like writing breaking-news stories, the startling, often shattering events such
as 9-11, Katrina, Columbine. A news magazine is often the first chance people
have to sit down and think about what that event means to them. It's important
to write about not just what happened, but to try to capture why people respond
the way they do when a natural disaster or a terrible crime occurs.
I sometimes get to do stories that are at the intersection of politics, values,
religion and ethics, and sometimes science and business. Stem cells can be
written about as a scientific, political or ethical quandary.
managed to avoid the tabloid stories that occupy cable news. I'm grateful for
TPExtra: Read an exerpt from Nancy Gibbs' The Preacher and the Presidents
TPExtra: Photos of Billy Graham with past U.S. presidents
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