Photo illustration of President Richard Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham by Jon Elliston.

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Rev. Billy Graham, the Montreat-based, world-renowned evangelist, long ago addressed some of his troublesome interactions with President Richard Nixon, but disclosures about their behind-the-scenes connections have kept surfacing.

Now, formerly classified and otherwise hidden parts of the daily diary kept by Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, have added even more to the record on Nixon and Graham’s tight relationship.

Last week, on the day before Graham celebrated his 96th birthday, the Nixon Presidential Library posted most of the previously unreleased parts of Haldeman’s “candid personal record and reflections on events, issues and people encountered during his service in the Nixon White House,” as the library describes the diary.

The records add a new level of detail on how Nixon and Graham consulted and bolstered each other during contentious times, with dissent over the Vietnam War sweeping the country, the Watergate scandal erupting, and both men sizing up their standing in national debates.

Most of the records came in the form of audio recordings, which can be heard below.

They expand on how Graham advised Nixon to make more effective speeches, clinch his 1972 re-election bid, address the nation’s spiritual woes and conduct matters of war and diplomacy.

“I talked to Billy Graham during the day,” Haldeman, who ultimately became the key conduit between the preacher and the president, noted in one newly released tape from May 8, 1971, the day Nixon made a major address on his decision to expand the war in Southeast Asia.

“And he said to tell the president to get tough, that that’s what people wanted.”

A history unveiled in batches

In recent years, a string of releases by the library has shown just how close Graham and Nixon were — even, and sometimes especially, during the embattled president’s darker moments.

In one notorious White House conversation that Nixon secretly recorded, a version of which was first released in 2002, the president and Graham descended into a lengthy anti-Semitic exchange about how Jews supposedly controlled the media.

And a recording released last year and published by Carolina Public Press caught an apparently drunk Nixon cursing on a phone call with Graham after a major speech on the Watergate scandal, with the preacher telling the president it had been “your finest hour.”

The release of key sections of Haldeman’s diary adds fuel to this historical fire.

Haldeman, who served as Nixon’s top advisor, gatekeeper and note-taker, left a meticulous record in his written and audio diaries. Excerpts were published shortly after his death in 1993, in the book The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White Housewhich he edited, leaving out key passages about Graham and Nixon.

Some parts of Haldeman’s diary were kept secret because of privacy and national security purposes, and also for whatever unknown reasons Haldeman chose to keep them out of his book.

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The new release fills in some significant blanks, including several previously undisclosed mentions of Graham’s role in the inner workings of the Nixon White House.

The middleman

H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s chief of staff, funneled info and advice between Nixon and Graham about matters foreign and domestic. Photo from Nixon Presidential Library

Haldeman’s diary points to the two-way traffic in messages between Graham and Nixon, and Graham’s communications with Haldeman and other ranking White House staffers.

Graham would call the president and his advisors with tips, insight and advice, and they’d respond by keeping Graham in the loop about major policy matters while seeking his counsel.

Selections from the material about Nixon and Graham in the new release cover a two-year stretch starting in early 1971 — a period in which the Nixon administration saw both its biggest accomplishments and the beginnings of its demise.

Much of the new material about Graham and Nixon deals with quick missives between the preacher and the White House.

On Feb. 8, 1971, after speaking with Graham on the phone, Haldeman recorded this in his diary: “Billy Graham had a lot of ideas on how to use television better. He’s especially pressing for the president to use a teleprompter when he does a read speech.”

In other newly released recordings, Haldeman noted Nixon’s directives to brief and consult Graham on the president’s outreach to China (both before and after Nixon’s historic visit there), as well as turning points in the Vietnam War and domestic political battles.

Deeper interactions

Nixon and Graham address a University of Tennessee crowd in Knoxville during one of Graham’s crusades in May 1970. U.S. National Archives photo

In addition to offering details about Graham and Nixon’s steady and quick back-and-forth, the new records illuminate some of their more in-depth communications.

In August of 1971, Nixon brought Graham along for a dinner cruise on the presidential yacht on the Potomac River. They were joined by Haldeman, Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor John Erlichman, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Presidential Counselor Donald Rumsfeld, and Special Counsel Harry Dent.

Haldeman’s previously published account described much of the conversation that night, which, he said, was “totally dominated” by Graham and Nixon.

During the fateful meet, Graham said that Nixon’s re-election was paramount both for the fate of the country and the success of Graham’s evangelical movement, Haldeman recalled.

The chief of staff gave a longer telling in his audio diary that night, which included this passage stemming from a Billy Graham Crusade in California that didn’t make it into Haldeman’s book: “[Graham] expanded on that to say he feels very strongly that this turning to Jesus and religions amongst the college-age youth is a very strong phenomenon that is growing and will become a very powerful and important factor — politically and otherwise.

“He feels that the youth have felt let down by everything they’ve tried, right on through the hard drugs, and that religion is the one thing they can find that gives them an answer, and that it is meeting a need and, therefore, is going to continue to grow.”

This expression of Graham’s thoughts on how Nixon-era politics could advance a religious upswing in America has gone unheard until now.

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A little more than a year later, Graham returned from a religious crusade that took him to India, Iran and Pakistan, countries caught up in the chess game of the Cold War that were of peak interest to Nixon.

Graham called Haldeman to share a lot of thoughts, pivoting between the geopolitical matters at stake and how Nixon should handle the religious calculus during the president’s upcoming inauguration ceremony.

A curious omission

Haldeman stood by the president until he was effectively fired in April 1973, as part of the Nixon administration’s last-ditch wave of resignations surrounding Watergate.

Oddly, when he edited his published diary shortly before his death, Haldeman left out any mention of Nixon’s enthusiastic participation in Billy Graham Day, which took place in Charlotte with much fanfare.

The Oct. 15, 1971, celebration was one of Nixon and Graham’s greatest mutually beneficial joint appearances, and one of the few days that the ever-stoic Haldeman might have smiled on.

“Billy did a great job of building the president in his talk, and the president did very well in paying him back for it,” Haldeman recounted. “It was, all and all, a very good day.”

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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