The revelation of anti-Semitic sniping by the Rev. Billy Graham during a private taped conversation with President Richard Nixon in 1972 has stung Jewish and non-Jewish interfaith leaders, who say they feel betrayed by one of America’s most respected religious leaders.
And despite the ailing 83-year-old Rev. Graham’s speedy apology, critics said the tape is still disturbing because it apparently sheds light on his true feelings about Jews, even as he was acting like their friend and supporting the Soviet Jewry movement and Israel.
Rev. Graham, an adviser to U.S. presidents since the 1950s, including serving as the religious mentor of President George W. Bush, should have stood up to Nixon’s anti-Semitic tirade, and the fact that he didn’t means he agreed, said Martin Marty, an expert on American religious history and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.
“Billy should have spoken up because he should have believed other than he did,” Marty told The Jewish Week.
“I believe that most of us have an instinct to be deferential when a president speaks one-on-one with us; it’s good for the office,” said Marty, also a Lutheran minister. “But when something egregious is getting spouted, one should not just go along. But Graham could not because he agreed with, even went further than Nixon. It shocked and disappointed all who knew Billy to know he would have spoken this way in his prime.”
The Rev. Graham-Nixon tape also highlights the complicated, some say troubling, Evangelical Christian theology that wholeheartedly supports the State of Israel while at the same time seeks the conversion of “sinner” Jews.
The 90-minute Nixon-Rev. Graham tape was recorded in the Oval Office on Feb. 1, 1972. The National Archives last week released 500 hours of 1972 Nixon tapes as part of an ongoing project.
In a candid discussion, Rev. Graham told Nixon he believed Jews controlled the American media, and called for the “stranglehold to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
“You believe that?” Nixon says after the “stranglehold” comment, according to published reports.
“Yes, sir,” says Rev. Graham.
“Oh, boy,” replies Nixon. “So do I. I can’t ever say that but I believe it.”
“No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something,” replies Graham.
Nixon was re-elected in 1972 but resigned in 1974 during the Watergate scandal.
Later on the tape, when Nixon discusses Jewish influence in Hollywood and the media, Rev. Graham says, “A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.”
Nixon replies: “You must not let them know.”
Graham apologized in a statement released by his Texas public relations firm last week, one day after the media reported the conversation.
“Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made in an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon … some 30 years ago,” the statement said. “They do not reflect my views and I sincerely apologize for any offense caused by the remarks.”
But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, rejected the apology as “mealy mouthed.”
“He does not address the ugliness, the sinisterness, of his beliefs,” Foxman said in a telephone interview. “All of a sudden he has lost his memory and says these things don’t reflect his view? Whose views do they reflect?
“It’s so sad that an icon of the church doesn’t have the guts to say that what he said is horrible and that nobody should believe it.”
Foxman added that Rev. Graham’s assertion that a second Nixon administration “might be able to do something” about the Jewish stranglehold on the nation “is chilling and frightening, even today, 30 years later. It is shameful that one of America’s most respected religious leaders and a spiritual adviser to presidents believed and espoused age-old classical anti-Semitic canards.”
Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, said he was shocked and disappointed by the revelations because it was uncharacteristic of the man he knew for 30 years.
He said the role of a religious leader in the White House is to hold the leader to the highest levels of behavior and standards, “to be Nathan the prophet to King David,” referring to the biblical prophet who admonished the king.
“He could have confronted Nixon and said, ‘This is ugly and poisonous and also untrue.’ Instead he seems to have agreed with Nixon,” Rabbi Rudin said.
At one point on the tape, Nixon and Rev. Graham share their antipathy of American Jews while complimenting “Israeli Jews.”
“The best Jews are actually the Israeli Jews,” says Nixon.
“That’s right,” agrees Rev. Graham, who later concurs with Nixon’s assertion that a “powerful bloc” of Jews confronts Nixon in the media.
“And they’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” Rev. Graham adds.
Marty said the split of Evangelicals being “pro-Israel and domestically anti-Semitic is a very familiar story.”
But the pro-Israel support is deceptive, he said, because it is based on the belief that a strong Israel is necessary for Jesus to come again, when they believe all Jews will be either converted or killed.
“Israel needs all the friends it can get, but not for these reasons,” Marty said.
“[Evangelicals] were Zionists before Jews were, but for another reason. [Evangelical leader Jerry] Falwell gave [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin awards and vice versa. We all thought Jews were getting snookered here. Many Evangelicals, and Billy on this tape, disassociate ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ American Jews from their Zionist, ‘good Jews’ camp, and that was what Billy was reflecting,” Marty said.
In his written apology, Rev. Graham said his legacy has been one of working for stronger bonds between Jews and Christians.
“Throughout my ministry, I have sought to build bridges between Jews and Christians. I will continue to strongly support all future efforts to advance understanding and mutual respect between our communities,” he said.
In January 2000, Rev. Graham questioned leaders of his own Southern Baptist denomination for targeting Jews and others for conversion, and was praised by Jewish leaders. In the 1990s, Rev. Graham met with Jewish leaders before a New York crusade to assure them there would be no targeting of Jews.
The Charlotte, N.C.-born evangelist also strongly supported freeing Soviet Jews.
In 1977, the American Jewish Committee gave Rev. Graham its first National Interreligious Award for efforts to bridge faiths.
Leonard Garment, Nixon’s longtime adviser, called the anti-Semitic conversation “standard garbage white Anglo Saxon middle-class people heard behind closed doors.”
“Unfortunately for those people who talk this way in private conversations, it’s confirmation of their own beliefs that Billy Graham would say this,” Garment told The Jewish Week.
But James Sibley, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s mission to Jews, said it would be unfair to generalize, and that “Dr. Graham grew up at a different time and all of us have been affected by the generation with which we grew up.”
Rev. Graham biographer William Martin, a sociology professor at Rice University, said he was pained and shocked by the Nixon tape.
“I don’t know why he made those statements to Nixon,” Martin, the author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” told the Chicago Tribune. “This is out of character with anything else I have heard Billy Graham say or be quoted as saying. I wish he hadn’t. But I think he needs to be seen in the light of a long and generally positive life.”