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New exhibit explores Billy Graham’s friendships with world leaders

In May 1970, President Richard Nixon was one of 75,000 people gathered to hear evangelist Billy Graham preach in Knoxville, Tenn. When they passed the collection plate, Nixon realized he didn’t have any money. So he borrowed some cash from a friend.

The friend? None other than Billy Graham.

“A number of presidents have looked to you for spiritual sustenance over the years,” Nixon later wrote to the famous preacher, “but I suspect I was the first to hit you up for a loan.”

Billy Graham grew up milking cows on a Charlotte farm, preached his first crusade in 1947 and made his first visit to the White House in 1950 at President Harry S. Truman’s invitation. Over more than 60 years of ministry, Graham, now 93, met with 11 U.S. presidents. Sometimes his spiritual outreach has taken public form, as when he prayed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration or gave a speech at Washington’s National Cathedral after 9/11. But Graham has also played a quiet, private role in the lives of these men and their loved ones, serving as spiritual adviser, pastor and friend to presidents of both political parties.

The story of his relationship with first families is explored in “Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador to World Leaders,” an exhibit running through Oct. 31 at Charlotte’s Billy Graham Library. The exhibit also reviews Graham’s experiences with international dignitaries, including Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II.

The exhibit is organized around the themes of hope, prayer, truth, service, friendship and the Gospel, all elements that Graham has endeavored to bring people through his public ministry. Large panels in the library’s foyer show the history of his preaching tours in Cold War-era Eastern Europe, his 1960 visit to Israel and more. Three display cases contain letters, photos and memorabilia that offer glimpses into the faith, humor and humanity of those who bear the burden of office.

Mementos sweet and solemn

Some of these objects reveal light moments. There’s a 2010 photo of President Barack Obama with Graham at his Montreat home, signed “To Billy Graham – Blessings to you!” A thank-you card from John F. Kennedy Jr. to Graham, following his George magazine interview, notes: “My wife enjoyed meeting you enormously. There’s not too many people around who make her blush and render her speechless. What’s your secret!” A quick card from Ronald Reagan: “Nancy says the hug would have been just fine so try it next time. …Warmest friendship, Ron.”

Other artifacts show Graham’s involvement in more solemn occasions: The Western Union telegram he sent from Jerusalem to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wife upon Eisenhower’s death in March 1969, and the letter from Lady Bird Johnson sending “devoted” thanks to Graham, who presided at her husband’s graveside services in 1973. “I never saw a time when the prospect of your coming did not elevate Lyndon’s spirits, ease the furrows on his brow and quicken the zest of his appetite for life,” she wrote to the man who had been Lyndon’s close friend.

In addition to slices of presidential life on view in “God’s Ambassador,” the library gift shop sells copies of the Aug. 20, 2007, issue of Time magazine, with a cover story on Graham’s role as “The Pastor In Chief.” There are more artifacts in the library’s permanent gallery. These include Nixon’s actual loan-reimbursement letter and check that are pictured in the “God’s Ambassador” exhibit, Queen Elizabeth II’s declaration granting Graham’s honorary knighthood in 2001 and the Congressional Gold Medal that Graham received jointly with his wife, Ruth, who died in 2007.

Throughout “God’s Ambassador,” Graham emerges as a man of conviction and sincerity who earns respect from some who don’t share his religious views. On one panel, Graham recalls being seated next to Raisa Gorbachev at a White House dinner honoring her husband, Mikhail. “We had an interesting conversation,” he says. “Though reported to be a staunch communist, she admitted to me her belief that there had to be something higher than ourselves.”

Leaders sought Graham’s advice, Henry Kissinger has said, precisely because Graham didn’t tell them what to do. Instead, he tried to give them a new way to think about the problem. He didn’t care about their politics. He cared about them.

“We sometimes forget that some of the loneliest people in the world are those who are in the public eye,” Graham has said. “They have spiritual needs just like everyone else.”