At twilight of his career, Graham weathers storm over remarks about Jews

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Billy Graham's birthplace is long gone, hauled off by fallen televangelist Jim Bakker to his now defunct theme park.

All that remains is a stone marker with a bronze relief of Graham, his fiery eyes and square jaw leaping off the plaque.

''Billy Graham is one of the giants of our time,'' reads the 1971 dedication. ''Truly a man of God.''

It's signed by President Richard Nixon.

Today, the great evangelist is haunted by words he said three decades ago to that same president in the presumed privacy of the Oval Office.

At 83, the ailing preacher is weathering a controversy over a newly released tape recording in which he makes disparaging remarks about Jews in a conversation with Nixon.

For some, the comments have all but erased the lifetime of good will Graham had built.

''I fear, and it's with great sadness, that his legacy will be tarnished by this permanently,'' says New York Rabbi James Rudin, past interreligious director of the American Jewish Committee. ''All of that will be balanced, unfortunately, maybe even overwhelmed, by this legacy of his clear statements -- his anti-Jewish statements.

''And this is a very, very unforgiving ... society in ways of judging people.''

But while many are disappointed that a man of Graham's stature would ever utter such words, they feel that the man should be taken for the whole of his actions and deeds.

''Obviously, there are people who are so blinded by single-issue morality that they will say that he is unworthy simply because of that lapse,'' says James Dunn, former director of the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington and a professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School. ''The vast majority of people didn't have him on a ridiculously high pedestal anyway. Most folks know he was just mortal, and not immortal -- like all the rest of us.''

On the tapes, Graham's trademark Southern drawl can be clearly heard agreeing with Nixon that left-wing Jews dominate the American media.

''They're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,'' Graham says, adding: ''This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country's going down the drain.''

''You believe that?'' Nixon asks.

''Yes, sir,'' says Graham.

''Oh boy. So do I,'' Nixon agrees. ''I can't ever say that, but I believe it.''

What surprised many was that Graham didn't just mumble his assent to his powerful friend's complaints about Jews -- he took the conversation a step further.

''Not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel,'' Graham is heard saying. ''But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.''

The comments were all the more stinging because Graham had long been considered a staunch friend of the Jewish people. He lobbied for freer emigration of Soviet Jews, castigated Southern Baptists for singling out Jews for conversion and has long supported the state of Israel.

When the tapes first surfaced, Graham issued a four-sentence apology but said he couldn't remember making the comments. Many Jews were unimpressed, and the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham H. Foxman, urged Graham to return a 1971 award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

But as the controversy grew, Graham realized a more heartfelt apology was needed, said Larry Ross, his longtime spokesman.

Ross says Graham consulted with Jewish and Christian leaders about what was needed; last weekend he issued an open apology.

''I don't ever recall having those feelings about any group, especially the Jews, and I certainly do not have them now,'' Graham said. ''My remarks did not reflect my love for the Jewish people. I humbly ask the Jewish community to reflect on my actions on behalf of Jews over the years that contradict my words in the Oval Office that day.''

When he heard Graham's second apology, Foxman declared, ''This is the Billy Graham we thought we knew.''

Ross says Graham made the apology, not out of concern for his image or legacy, but out of fear that outdated views he no longer holds would be used by some to sow dissent between evangelicals and Jews.

Rudin says the comments will hurt Graham in a lasting way ''because of who he was at the time ... and where he said it.''

Charlotte teacher Emily Harris, a Jew who works in a building on the old Graham farm site, says she worries that Graham only apologized because he got caught.

''I don't think prejudice like that changes that quickly,'' Harris says, adding that the controversy is likely to have a lasting effect. ''A lot of people don't let go that easily.''

But others feel the revelation only enhances Graham's image.

Rabbi James Bennett spoke of the Nixon tapes from his pulpit at Charlotte's Temple Beth El, the largest reform synagogue in the Carolinas. Graham has been a role model for piety throughout his life, Bennett says, and now he can be a role model for repentance

''I think that Billy Graham, the legacy of Billy Graham, is perhaps even stronger for the mature way in which he has finally, appropriately dealt with this whole episode,'' says Bennett. ''His actions speak much louder than his words. He's a great man -- a man of faith. And I think that he will be measured by the whole of his life, and not by any single period of it.''

For most, the greatest tragedy of the episode is that it follows one of Graham's most memorable sermons, one that many considered a fitting swan song for a religious leader in the twilight of his career.

Just six months ago, on a national day of prayer after the Sept. 11 attacks, a gaunt, frail Graham was helped to the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington. The ailing evangelist with snow-white hair spoke in a voice as powerful as ever, reassuring a grieving country with the words, ''This nation will not be defeated.''

Now, with the nation focused on him again for words of a different kind, Graham likely does not have the luxury of time to repair his image. He has been battling Parkinson's disease for years and spent much of the last year in the hospital with pneumonia and bronchitis.

William Martin of Rice University spent more than five years writing his biography of Graham. He was working on his latest revisions for a new edition when the tapes were released, and now he must make changes.

''I wish it were not there, but it obviously cannot be avoided,'' Martin says. He said he was personally saddened by Graham's remarks, but that they will do little to diminish the preacher in the eyes of those who view his whole life.

''I think that the people who have been his supporters will be inclined to forgive him,'' Martin says. ''And some, delighted to find flaws, even serious flaws, will be happy to hold it against him. ... Billy Graham would be quick to say he's a human being, not a plaster saint.''

In Charlotte, the Graham mystique is still powerful. There is the Billy Graham Parkway, and soon the city will become headquarters to his worldwide missions. Boosters are even raising money to return his childhood home to Charlotte.

Wayne Britt, who runs a barber shop near the Graham plaque, hopes that people can put the Nixon tapes in the context they deserve.

''All of us grow,'' he says. ''We should. If we don't, we're in trouble.''

Sitting in a dentist's office this week on the former site of the Graham family farm, Hugh Whitaker was reminded of an auction he attended not long ago. One of the items for sale was a milk bottle, supposedly from the Graham dairy.

''Do you know what that bottle auctioned for?'' the 74-year-old retired salesman asked. ''That bottle went for $10,600. They bought it on account of the name, is why they bought it. ...

''The Graham name still means a lot.''

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP's Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh.

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