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Almost thirty years after President Nixon resigned in disgrace, the tapes continue to come out, their power to sully reputations undimmed by time.
Now it is the Rev. Billy Graham who has been made to feel the lash of his own words, secretly taped by the president who sought his spiritual counsel and used him for "cover."
We knew, long ago, of Nixon’s own anti-Semitism. We heard his voice on the first wave of tapes, wanting to know how his daughters were being deployed in his re-election campaign. When staffers told him they were scheduled to appear at functions in support of the arts, he protested, "No, no, that’s Jews and queers."
Nixon himself has long since lost the power to shock us, even when we hear him proposing to drop nuclear weapons on Vietnam.
But this conversation with Billy Graham is something else again. Here is the most admired and influential religious leader in America complaining to the president of the United States about the Jews and their "stranglehold" on the media, and blaming them for "all the pornography."
Even when Nixon replies that he agrees but "can’t say that" in public, Graham presses the point: Yes, right, but if you get elected to a second term, then we could do something about the problem.
Graham adds that while many Jews are friendly to him, "they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country."
Today, Graham claims to have no memory of the conversation, as if to throw ever-so-slight a doubt on whether it actually occurred. Alas, we have the tapes. Advisers (and network news anchors bending over backward to sound respectful) point out that the old evangelist is in his eighties and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, an argument similar to the one used to try to keep war criminals from being brought to trial.
What they might have pointed out instead is that Billy Graham, at a time when he was presenting himself as a moral leader and conducting "Crusades for Christ," was saying things no person with the slightest claim to moral stature could be imagined saying, under any circumstances.
Given nearly unfettered access to the highest halls of power, the minister used his influence to slander an entire people, to betray the trust of those who had by his own account been good to him, to urge the most powerful person in the world to act vigorously in the service of bigotry.
Closer in time to Dachau than to the present moment, the "preacher to the presidents" counseled the rankest, crudest, most heart-sickening anti-Semitism.
This news is especially painful to people who have revered Billy Graham, seeing him as a class act who operated on a much higher level than the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons and Jimmy Swaggarts who came after him. I recall how some people who loathed and feared Nixon took comfort in the thought that "at least he’s talking to Billy Graham."
Now that we know what poison he was pouring into the president’s ear, it will be impossible ever to think of him in the same way again. As paranoid as Nixon was, his spiritual advisor sounds even nuttier.
Dr. Graham says that the statements he cannot remember saying do not reflect his real views, and that he apologizes. For what, one wonders. The word "repentance" has been conspicuously absent from news accounts.
The very thought of all the times Billy Graham has "led the nation in prayer" is painful today, and not just to people who never liked him in the first place, who found him hard to take even at his best.
Had he been caught with a hooker, or with his hand in the till, or busted trying to pick up a boy in a bus station washroom, and it had come out only now, we’d probably just feel embarrassment for the old guy. But this goes way deeper. We have all said things we regret, things we’d never want made public. Graham said them to the president of the United States, from a position of privilege, by way of advice.
What must people be feeling who attended his "Crusades" around the time of that phone call, who heard him preach, who poured down out of the stadium seats at his call to conversion, now that they know what was really on his mind?
David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com