ASHEVILLE, NC — Evangelist Billy Graham reached out to President Richard Nixon on the day he first spoke about the Watergate scandal, offering the president encouragement and hope.
The tapes of the conversation were released this week along with 340 hours of other conversations by the Nixon Presidential Library and posted online by the National Archives and Records.
In the tapes, Graham can be heard telling Nixon he gave a convincing speech in April 1973 when he told the nation he was not aware or connected with the Watergate break-in, where people involved in Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign planned to photograph documents and place listening devices in the headquarters of the Democratic Party.
Graham told the president his wife, Ruth, thought that left wing groups and communists were plotting against him. Nixon agreed.
"Ruth left you this little note: 'To be able to stand steady in defeat is in itself a victory,'" Graham said. "You haven't been defeated, but you stood steady, and you won a victory tonight, a big one, maybe one of the biggest in history."
The conversation then turned toward Graham's opinion of Nixon's speech.
"Your sincerity, your humility, your asking for prayers all of that had a tremendous impact," Graham said.
Nixon asked Graham if he really thought that.
"I'm telling you the truth, and I'm not just trying to encourage you. I know you get all that. I really mean it," Graham said.
The five-minute conversation ended with the president and Grahams each saying he loved the other.
"It was so good of you to call," Nixon said. "The thing about Billy Graham, he always calls, when it's good or bad."
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association released a statement to the Citizen-Times of Asheville (http://avlne.ws/19RsaoI) pointing out Graham has admitted to sometimes saying things he regretted as part of his personal, pastoral relationship with 11 presidents.
"Like presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who also phoned the president that evening, at that time, Mr. Graham trusted his integrity, as he didn't yet know the whole story," the Graham association statement said. "Mr. Graham's pastoral intent was to be accessible and transparent in encouraging his longtime friend, not enabling the president. At that point, the evangelist wholeheartedly believed in the innocence of the president and used a euphemism to express righteous anger on his behalf."
After Nixon resigned, and transcripts of the tapes emerged, Graham realized Nixon misled him and became physically ill, the association said.
"I wanted to believe the best about him for as long as I could," the association quoted Graham as saying. "When the worst came out, it was nearly unbearable for me."
Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times