Byline: Lisa Miller
it would seem at first blush to be hubristic to write yet another biography of Billy Graham, especially one that focuses on his relationships with American presidents. At 88, Graham is, and has been for more than five decades, one of the most celebrated men in history, the subject of dozens of biographies and one excellent autobiography. And the evangelist's own transparent nature and predilection for truth telling make a portraitist's job both too easy and too hard: he is exactly what he seems to be. For all these reasons, you might imagine that there's nothing new to say about him.
How wonderful, then, that the authors of "The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House" approach their task with such passionate inventiveness. Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, both veterans at Time magazine, have that peculiar gift among newsmagazine writers for being able to shape masses of complex and contradictory information into a compelling narrative. Even better, they have sifted through all the source material--including never-before-published memos by Time correspondents--and packed their story full of details so delicious that even if you've read them before you're happy to read them again. They also had access to Graham himself, and though their interviews are not revelatory, they do show a lion in his winter, turning over the events of his extraordinary life sweetly, with pride, puzzlement and remorse.
"The Preacher and the Presidents" gives you Lyndon Johnson lying in bed, watching three television sets and refusing to sleep until he finishes all the newspapers stacked on his nightstand; when Graham enters the room, the president kneels in his pajamas. You see Nixon, joining Graham at a 1970 crusade and then, when the offering plate comes by, realizing he has no cash. In one of the book's most poignant passages, you see Reagan, post presidency and already in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, telling the visiting evangelist that before they can pray, they have to wait for the arrival of Billy Graham.
It is easy to be sentimental about Graham, but Gibbs and Duffy are clear-eyed about his faults: a consuming passion for politics and a love for power that could undermine his neutrality and his authority as a gospel preacher. They show him advising, kibitzing and flattering presidents and would-be presidents. He boasted during the 1952 election that he could swing 16 million votes, and throughout …