Duffy delves into soul of presidency in latest book


 Messenger photo by John Matuszak
Michael Duffy is joined by his parents, Nancy and Robert, of Bexley, following a discussion about his latest book "The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, " at the Bexley Library Sept. 23. Duffy is an assistant managing editor for Time magazine and frequently appears as a commentator on "Meet the Press" and other news programs.

Michael Duffy, Bexley native and assistant managing editor at Time magazine, knows the inner workings of the White House after 20 years covering Washington.

For his latest book, "The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House," Duffy and co-author Nancy Gibbs turned to a man who has probably been closer to the soul of these powerful men than anyone else.

"We couldn’t think of anyone else in American history who had known eleven presidents this well, or had even known eleven presidents," Duffy told an audience at the Bexley Library Sept. 23. "It was an incredible clothesline on which to hang a study of American politics."

With access to every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush – and one potential future president, Hillary Clinton – Graham was also subjected to the seductive lure of power, and did not always successfully fight it off, the authors discovered.

"He was not only an advisor, he was really interested in the game," Duffy said. "It was a temptation for him. It was his weak spot."

Graham even briefly entertained the idea of running for president himself, until his wife, Ruth, told him "I don’t think Americans will vote for a divorced president."

The idea for the book sprang out of the journalists’ curiosity about the influence of evangelical Christians in the 2004 election of Bush.

From this came the suggestion to write a book about Graham, the most influential evangelical preacher of the 20th century. But they decided a full biography would be too much to take on, and they opted for a study of his relationship with the presidents.

A year of negotiations with Graham’s people led to five interviews at his Montreat, N.C., mountaintop retreat.

Getting Graham to talk convinced the presidents and their family members to open up, as well.

"Graham was like a skeleton key. He opened every door," Duffy said.

Even the means by which the presidents responded provided an insight into their leadership styles.

Bill Clinton was the first to commit to an interview and the last to actually talk, typical of the procrastination of his White House, Duffy shared. (The author also does a pretty good Bill Clinton imitation, which amused the audience.)

Bush Sr. corresponded by email and came across much funnier and more personable than in person.

Questions to George W. Bush went through Karl Rove one at a time, "which tells you something about that presidency," Duffy observed.

Graham himself was "remarkably open" and candid about his triumphs and the traps he fell into.

The first misstep came after the rising 31-year-old evangelist met with President Harry Truman at the White House. Afterward, Graham was goaded by reporters into revealing the substance of the private discussion and then posed in prayer for a photograph on the White House lawn.

Graham was never invited back to meet Truman, who only forgave him for the indiscretion years later.

He enjoyed a cordial friendship with President Dwight Eisenhower, but really hit it off with Vice President Richard Nixon, with whom he shared strong anti-communist views.

It would not prove to be a mutually beneficial alliance.

"Graham brought out the best in Nixon, and Nixon brought out the worst in Graham," Duffy said.

Graham was enticed into endorsing Nixon against Kennedy in 1960, bucked him up following his defeat, and maintained the friendship during his return to power.

In return, Nixon and his aides ruthlessly exploited  the relationship for political gain.

Duffy acknowledged that Graham was taped making anti-Semitic remarks along with Nixon.

"He didn’t just agree, he took it a step further," Duffy said of statements he characterized as "vile garbage."

The best defense Graham could offer was that he was "trying to agree with (Nixon) and make him feel better."

Graham had often tried to get Nixon to talk more about his spiritual beliefs, until he had to concede that he didn’t say much because there was nothing there, the authors learned.

On his civil rights record, Duffy gives Graham high marks during the 1950s, when he insisted on racially integrated congregations for his southern crusades (one of which was attended by 13-year-old Billy Clinton, who was impressed by this courageous stand and contributed to the ministry).

Graham was less forward-leaning in the ’60s, Duffy added, and now wishes he had been "more aggressive."

Graham had the closest pastoral relationship with Lyndon Johnson, who called the most often for advice and "long, tall preaching," and who liked to fly with Graham because he figured the Almighty was less likely to knock the plane from the sky.

He wasn’t close to Jimmy Carter, a fellow Southern Baptist and Sunday school teacher, but also a Democrat who said "he really didn’t need anybody’s help getting around the Bible."

Graham said Ronald Reagan was the president he knew the best and, paradoxically, the one he would have liked to have known better.

He is closest personally with the Bush family, dating from an invitation to teach a Bible class from Bush Sr.’s mother in 1955, to his hand in George W. Bush’s religious conversion in 1985 and his election in 2000.

That year Graham again chose to cross the line between religion and politics when he endorsed the Bush candidac two days before the election, Duffy pointed out.

Graham counseled Hillary Clinton in 1998 to forgive her husband for his infidelity, when others were urging her to dump him.

While Duffy, who frequently appears on Sunday morning news shows, believes that the 2008 presidential election is "impossible to call" at this point, he gives the best chance to Clinton and her well-organized campaign.

"Her campaign is a machine," Duffy said. "I tend to think she has a tremendous advantage over both sides."

Politics run in the Duffy family

At the time Michael Duffy was named Student Council president, his father, Robert, was the president of the Bexley school board.

So it may be too big a surprise that the younger Duffy made his mark in journalism covering the White House and writing a book on the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush.

Duffy’s latest foray into the heart and mind of the presidency is "The Preacher and the Presidents," an exploration of the Rev. Billy Graham’s relationship with chief executives from Truman to George W. Bush.

Duffy returned to his hometown Sept. 23 to speak at the Bexley Library, which he  remembered as "a home away from home" while he was growing up, so much so that his family bought the Windsor chairs when the building was renovated.

Politics and community involvement were big topics at the Duffy household, he recalled in a phone interview. In addition to his father’s service on the school board, his mother, Nancy, frequently attends and sometimes agitates at City Council meetings.

She and others were successful in convincing council members to eliminate property owner assessments for sidewalk repairs after passage of a street levy that included sidewalks in its ballot language.

Teachers and librarians were a big influence on his intellectual development.

In Bexley "everybody helped you," and he felt he was better prepared for college when he enrolled at Oberlin than his peers.

While Duffy, a Class of 1976 alumnus, did participate in student government in high school, he did not work for the award-winning paper The Torch.

An English major, he did not become interested in journalism until he reached college.

He was a columnist for Defense Week before joining Time in 1985.

He joined on the same day as another aspiring journalist, Nancy Gibbs, a fateful beginning for what has proven to be a prolific partnership.

Duffy and Gibbs have penned more than 100 cover stories together for Time. Gibbs has been the lead reporter on such important stories as the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Gibbs, a New York City native and Yale University graduate, brought her spiritual side to the Graham project, while Duffy lent his political expertise.

Gibbs is a deacon at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and attends Chautauqua lectures every summer.

"She should have been a preacher," Duffy told his library audience, "and she believes Time is her pulpit."


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.