The Fight over Billy Graham's Legacy

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, May 30, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Fight over Billy Graham's Legacy


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

With the great evangelist in his twilight, his children jostle over his image and the family name.

Billy Graham was upstairs, napping. In the kitchen of the mountaintop home where he and his wife, Ruth, raised their five children, the table was set for lunch. Except for a flickering candle on that table and the exuberant pacing of two large dogs named China and Lars, the house was still, as empty as a museum after hours. The walls--witness to so many squabbles and pranks, prayers and hymns, private conversations with would-be presidents, rock stars, and prizefighters--did not speak.

A floorboard creaked above me. May I see him? I asked. May I say hello?

No, said his son Franklin. In late April I made a pilgrimage to Montreat, N.C., where Billy Graham's pugnacious fourth child was giving me a tour of the family home. Franklin had just made headlines for aligning himself with the "birthers" and questioning the authenticity of President Barack Obama's Christian beliefs--statements he clarified after emphatic pushback from the White House. Now Franklin, who took charge of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 2000, explained the importance of protecting his father from the press. Daddy, as all the children call him, no longer hears very well. Were he to misunderstand a question, or were a casual remark to be taken out of context -- well, that was a risk Franklin didn't want to take.

Billy Graham's well-publicized hospitalization for pneumonia earlier this month, at the age of 92, served as a potent reminder that even the most vital and visible lives do eventually end. "It's not death that scares him," says his oldest child, Gigi, who recently moved back to North Carolina from Florida to be near her father. "It's the dying process." Ever since he preached his last crusade in New York City in 2005, and especially since Ruth died in 2007, the man known as God's ambassador has lived in increasing seclusion, hindered by hearing loss, dimming sight, and the infirmity that comes with great old age. The impatient, gangly Gospel preacher who punctuated his sermons with jagged arm gestures now uses a walker and a wheelchair. The man who was said to have preached for six decades with "a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other," and who meticulously catalogued his personal library of 13,000 books, now watches Fox, the evening news, and local programming on a massive flat-screen TV.

Graham--who has prayed with every president since Harry Truman--is "in transition," as his confidants say. In his twilight, his children and publicists continue to wrestle over his legacy and public image. Last year's visit to Montreat by President Obama was an official meeting--half an hour or so, requested by the president. The two men spoke about their mutual fondness for golf and the loneliness of the presidency. Then each prayed for the other. "The president said afterward that he was deeply moved by Graham's personal warmth and the grace he extended," a White House staffer says. Franklin is less effusive: "The president prayed a nice, sweet prayer, and Daddy prayed for the president."

Most of Graham's visitors come through the back door, as it were, arranged by the children as special favors to special friends. As kids, the siblings--Gigi, Anne, Bunny, Franklin, and Ned--bickered ruthlessly, "grumbling, interrupting, slurring each other," according to their mother's journals. Now they're grown, ranging in age from 53 to 66, but the rivalry continues. As in so many famous families, each child struggles with how best to wear the family name. Franklin, who has a second home in Alaska (and plans to ride his motorcycle there this summer) has long been friendly with Sarah Palin, and in 2009 helped orchestrate a much--publicized visit between the former governor and his father. Palin, who was on her book tour, came with her parents and her aunt Sally, Franklin says, and she brought Billy a Carhartt jacket. …

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