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Billy Graham's Past Conversation a Tough Cross to Bear

Religion: Recently released anti-Semitic comments made during a White House chat with Nixon have roiled his relations with Jews. But some accept apologies.

March 31, 2002|ALLEN G. BREED | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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 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. Then 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.

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