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The Rev. Graham's hurtful words can't be forgotten

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Now that we know about the Rev. Billy Graham's lament to President Richard Nixon that the Jewish "stranglehold" on the American media was ruining the country, it's hard to say which part of the exchange is more revolting: the bigotry or the sycophancy.

Was Graham really this anti-Semitic, or was he seeking to enhance his own position by feeding Nixon's paranoia?

The answer appears to be both.

Given what we now know about his views in 1972, the man who styled himself as America's preacher has a lot to answer for. The tepid apology issued by his PR firm leaves too much unsaid.

Cards on the table: I never much trusted Graham. It always seemed to me that any religious leader who buzzed so relentlessly around the successive presidents, lending his religious prestige to their political intrigues, was probably more interested in earthly might than in spiritual right.

To his credit, Graham came to that realization himself in the 1980s. That doesn't make his exchange with Nixon any less chilling.

We plebeians hardly ever get to find out what really happens in the inner sanctum of power. That's what makes the 500 hours of Nixon tapes in the National Archives such a treasure trove of perversity. It's one thing to suspect that the character of certain leaders was marked by prejudice; it's quite another to see the proof in black and white.

In case you missed it, the tapes reveal Graham agreeing with Nixon's comments over what they both saw as the Jewish domination of the media.

Graham: "This stranglehold has got to be broken, or this country's going down the drain."

Nixon: "You believe that?"

Graham: "Yes, sir ... but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something."

Later, Graham says: "A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them."

In his apology, Graham says: "Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made in an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon ... some 30 years ago. They do not reflect my views, and I sincerely apologize for any offense caused by the remarks.

"Throughout my ministry, I have sought to build bridges between Jews and Christians. I will continue to strongly support all future efforts to advance understanding and mutual respect between our communities."

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith was not buying it yesterday. Bridges between Southern Baptist evangelical preachers and imaginary Jewish media conspiracy are not really his cup of tea.

"He has no memory of the occasion? Well, listen to the tape," Foxman said. "He regrets comments he 'apparently' made? There's nothing apparent about them. These were his views.

"I want to hear a mea culpa, that he understands how terrible and hurtful these thoughts and words are. I want to hear his voice of moral indignation for those bigots who will use him as a point of reference in the future."

When Graham said those words 30 years ago, he could not have known that an international network of terrorists would fly airplanes into the World Trade Center. He could not have known that after those attacks, he would be called to speak at a national prayer service with Catholic, Muslim and Jewish clergy, reminding us that all God's children must reject the ethnic, religious and political hatreds that turn us against each other.

And he could not have known how the echo of his own bigotry would undercut the moral authority he has sought to exercise for so many years.

Graham is 83 now and frail. Anyone who's been around that long might have forgotten the ethnic slurs he uttered 30 years ago, and also might have undergone a sincere change of heart. Then again, some old prejudices never die; they just learn to dress a lot nicer.

Which description fits Graham is not for me to say; I can't see into the man's heart. But now that his words have come back to singe him, it ought to serve as a caution to all religious leaders who like to fly that close to the flame of power.

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