At the last of his 417 crusades, the one held in New York City in June 2005, evangelist Billy Graham made an unscripted proposal.
Both Bill and Hillary Clinton were sitting with him on stage in Flushing Meadows when Graham greeted them as his "wonderful friends of many years." "I told him," Graham said of President Clinton, "when he left the presidency, he should become an evangelist, because he had all the gifts." Graham paused, and added with a smile, "And he could [let] his wife run the country."
That remark caused such a furor in some quarters that Graham's evangelist son Franklin had to explain that it was meant as a joke.
But Graham had praised and defended both Clintons before. And in a new interview, Hillary Clinton reports that the evangelist fulfilled a pastoral role during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and helped the First Lady endure the ordeal. At that time, Clinton says, Graham was "incredibly supportive to me personally. And he was very strong in saying, 'I really understand what you're doing and I support you.' He was just very personally there for me."
She added: "The entire world was judging my decisions and my actions and there weren't very many people who, frankly, were understanding, and he was. He said, 'You know, forgiveness is the hardest thing that we're called upon to do. And we all face it at some point in our lives and I'm just really proud of you for taking it on."
Details of the Clinton-Graham conversations are reported for the first time in The Preacher and the Presidents, Billy Graham In the White House, which is being published this week. An excerpt will appear in TIME magazine this Friday.
The book makes clear that Clinton is not the first candidate to have a relationship with Graham amid the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign. Dwight Eisenhower asked Graham to assist with speeches in the 1952 race (Graham declined). Lyndon Johnson invited him to spend the weekend at the White House before the 1964 election because aides were hearing warnings that he might come out for Goldwater. Nixon recruited him to carry a secret message to Johnson during the 1968 campaign; Gerald Ford sought his advice in 1976 when he faced a born-again Southern Baptist challenger in Jimmy Carter. On the weekend before the 2000 election, amidst roiling charges about a buried drunk driving citation, Graham appeared at George W. Bush's side after a private breakfast together in the soon to be contested state of Florida and said, "I believe in the integrity of this man. I've known him as a boy. I've known him as a young man. And we're very proud of him."
And yet Hillary Clinton's relationship with Graham goes back nearly as far as the current President's. A lifelong Methodist, Clinton had seen Graham on television growing up in Chicago. But she did not hear him preach in person until 1971, when she attended the Northern California crusade at the invitation of her then boyfriend, Bill Clinton, who had first heard Graham preach in Little Rock in 1959. "I wanted her to see Billy," he said.
Hillary and Graham did not meet in person until 1989, when Graham was preaching a weeklong crusade in Little Rock.
"He liked politics, therefore he liked politicians," she says. "And he loved elections. Because he knew that you had to have a narrative, you had to tell a story, you had to connect with people, all the things we talk about in politics."
Hillary Cinton's association with Graham is unlikely to have the same galvanizing affect on Democratic primary voters as George W. Bush's did with the G.O.P. base eight years ago. But it certainly doesn't hurt the Democratic front-runner either.
Of Senator Clinton, Graham said he liked her as a person. "I keep up with her," Graham said. "I think a lot of Hillary... She is different from the Hillary you see in the media. There is a warm side to her and a spiritual one."
The Preacher and the Presidents will be published this week by Center Street. On Friday, August 10, at 10 p.m., ABC News' Charles Gibson will host a one-hour special in conjunction with the book's publication entitled "Pastor To Power," which includes a roundtable discussion on faith and the Oval Office with Gibson, Graham and Presidents Carter, Clinton and George H.W. Bush.