Welcome to WNC CONFIDENTIAL, a new Carolina Public Press feature about official secrets and public disclosures — all from, about or relating to the mountain region. Every other Thursday, we’ll give you the key to recent revelations and put hard-to-find records at your fingertips.
It was just a 12-minute phone call, but its participants and the matters they discussed make for an extraordinary listen.
The date was Oct. 16, 1972, three weeks before President Richard Nixon would face Democratic challenger Sen. George McGovern in Nixon’s reelection bid for the presidency. Nixon placed an early evening call to one of his closest confidants, the Rev. Billy Graham, to compare notes on the state of his campaign and various domestic and foreign policy matters.
A digitized version of the phone call, which was recorded with a secret White House taping system, was made available on the Internet for the first time, on Thursday, as part of a sizable publicly accessible release of documents and recordings by the Nixon Presidential Library.
The recording was made public several years ago, but until now was only available for a fee from the Nixon Library and the National Archives and Records Administration. The full collection of newly digitized Nixon administration recordings, which span July to October, 1972, is now available for free here.
Also included in the Nixon Library’s new release are then-former President Nixon’s secret grand jury testimony regarding Watergate, from June 1975; personal dictabelt recordings from Nixon’s White House desk, including a lengthy Nixon monologue on his surprise, early morning visit with anti-war protestors at the Lincoln Memorial; scores of secretly recorded phone calls and meetings; and thousands of pages of declassified documents from the offices of top Nixon administration officials.
The October 1972 Graham/Nixon tape, described in depth below, is one of more than 20 conservations between the two men that were secretly recorded. Many are still awaiting release, and most are only available in federal archives.
Graham to Nixon: “You just tell me, and I’ll do it”
As Carolina Public Press recently reported, newly released materials from the Nixon administration’s files have further detailed the intricate and mutually supportive relationship between the president and the preacher.
By the time of the October 1972 call, Nixon and Graham had become close friends and political collaborators. Some of their alliance had a public face at the time; other facets have only become known much later through releases of confidential conversations like this one.
Nixon and Graham began the call by exchanging pleasantries, with the president telling Graham he’d been “fantastic” during a recent appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show,” which was a TV talk show. “All the things you’ve been doing really have been great,” Nixon said. “And it gets through [to people]. We follow it closely.”
(Several short portions of the call remain confidential, for reasons that are undisclosed. They are excised with a tone that briefly replaces the recording.)
Graham, from his home in Montreat, N.C., located in eastern Buncombe County, explained that he would soon depart on lengthy evangelistic crusades in the United States and abroad. Noting that he would be in the country until the day before election day, Graham said to Nixon: “Anything you can think of you want me to do … I’m not in a position to know all that I could do, but you just tell me, and I’ll do it.”
“You don’t need any guidance,” Nixon responded. “Your political instincts are very good.”
Graham added that he would do what he could to buoy Nixon in his public statements during the crusades, particularly in light of a brewing political scandal that was just starting to catch attention.
“I’m going to hold a press conference tomorrow afternoon in Tulsa, and I was going to talk about … your personal character and your personal morality and integrity, and that kind of thing,” Graham added. “I don’t think you need anybody to say it for you, because I don’t think this business is touching you, but you don’t want to take any chances.”
The “business” Graham was referring to was the then little-known story of the Watergate burglaries, which had taken place a few months prior. It had started to crop up in media reports, but wasn’t yet widely discussed.
Graham and Nixon went on to talk about a wide variety of topics, from the Vietnam War to alleged vote-buying by John F. Kennedy to how Nixon’s image and messages were playing in the media.
A portion of the conversation dealt with Graham’s upcoming, five-week crusade around the world, and how the U.S. State Department was helping him make connections along the way. “Be sure to send me an itinerary, so I can send a few messages to some of these people,” Nixon said. “When you’re in Iran, you outta see the Shah.”
The Shah was already on Graham’s itinerary, and Graham went on to meet with him and other world leaders, acting as a kind of back-channel ambassador for Nixon.
“Well, when you get back, you’ll come and see me, will you?” Nixon asked.
“I surely will,” Graham replied.
Near the end of the conversation, Graham said to Nixon: “Thank God for you. You’re 10 times more than I ever expected when you went in office four years ago.”
Listen here to contributing reporter Jon Elliston, who recently spoke about the records on Billy Graham’s collaboration with Richard Nixon with The State of Things, on public radio station WUNC.
View and download recently released letters and memos between Nixon and Graham in Elliston’s story, which you can find here.