It was one of those stories that forever change the way an important public figure is perceived. Ten years ago this week, among a newly released batch of Nixon-era White House tapes, came the disturbing revelation that the Reverend Billy Graham, while at the height of his fame and influence, had uttered anti-Semitic slurs and stereotypes during a Feb. 1, 1972 Oval Office meeting with an all-too-pleased Richard Nixon.
Though he claimed to “have no memory of the occasion,” an apology was immediately issued by an increasingly frail 83-year-old Graham (whose health has continued to decline over the past decade).
It was the Chicago Tribune’s James Warren who first reported Graham’s remarks in great detail, and the tone of the story made it clear Warren recognized this was a story with major historical implications.
Warren’s in-depth treatment of the story was something of an anomaly in the first few days after the tape’s release, perhaps because Nixon’s penchant for engaging in racist and anti-Semitic slurs in private conversation was old news by 2002, eight years after the former president’s death. (Longtime readers of this column know the Monitor has decried the media double standard under which Nixon’s bigotry is endlessly dissected and critiqued while the no less shocking anti-Semitism of a Harry Truman is downplayed or ignored, but there’s no getting around the fact that Nixon was a deeply prejudiced man.)
But Billy Graham? Graham had for decades been one of America’s most admired figures, a national icon, a man respected across the board for his seeming sincerity, rock-solid faith and openness to working with those whose beliefs differ from his own. He was also a staunch friend of Israel and his organization had funded and produced “The Hiding Place,” a moving film about Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch evangelical Christian whose family had hidden many Jews from the Nazis.
But a different side of Graham emerged during the 90-minute White House meeting with Nixon. Graham was particularly exercised by what he saw as the “stranglehold” Jews maintained on the American media.
“This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” Graham intoned.
“You believe that?” asked Nixon.
“Yes, sir,” said Graham.
“Oh, boy,” Nixon responded. “So do I. I can’t ever say that but I believe it.” “No,” Graham agreed, “but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something about it.”
The Graham-Nixon conversation had been alluded to in the diaries of Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, but the damning details weren’t known until the actual transcript was released to the public.
Haldeman wrote that Graham and Nixon voiced strong concern about Jewish control of the media, and that “Graham has the strong feeling that the Bible says there are Satanic Jews and there’s where our problem arises.”
On the tape, the subject of Jews and the media comes up when Graham mentions that he’d been invited to lunch with Time magazine editors.
“You meet with all their editors, you better take your Jewish beanie,” Haldeman joked.
“Is that right?” Graham said, laughing. “I don’t know any of them now.”
Nixon then told Graham that he had heard from the executive producer of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” a popular television program in the late sixties and early seventies, that “eleven of the twelve writers are Jewish.” Nixon also described Life, Newsweek, The New York Times and other leading news publications as being “totally dominated by the Jews.”
And, Nixon added, while network news anchors Howard K. Smith, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite were mere “front men who may not be of that persuasion,” their writers were “95 percent Jewish.”
“A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine,” said Graham a little later in the conversation. “They swarm around me and are friendly to me. Because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”
To which Nixon responded, “You must not let them know.”