Billy Graham's First Family Trifecta

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Last Wednesday, between a Cabinet meeting and an address on the future of U.S.-Cuban relations, President George W. Bush had a long-overdue lunch with his old friend and spiritual mentor, evangelist Billy Graham.

Later that afternoon, former President George Herbert Walker Bush, a friend of Graham's for 40 years, dropped by Graham's hotel room for some private time. And in the evening, Graham visited privately with former Sen. Chuck Robb and his wife, Lynda, whose mother, Lady Bird Johnson, died over the summer. Graham spoke with Lynda, her sister Luci and Lady Bird by phone two days before the former First Lady died.

It was all a part of a lifetime of ministering to the first families, which Graham began with the Eisenhowers and has continued through with three generations of Bushes and both former President Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

The private lunch with President Bush, which the West Wing did not announce to reporters, took place in the White House residence; this was typical of Graham's visits over the years, which seldom took place in the Oval Office but often involved nights and weekends spent in the residence, Camp David or private presidential retreats like the Johnsons’ Texas ranch or the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Me. Bush had invited Graham to visit him for lunch and dinner several times in the last two years, but Graham, who was hospitalized for two weeks this summer with intestinal bleeding, was unable to make the trip. He had long been reluctant to leave his Montreat, N.C., home while his wife Ruth, was bedridden. Ruth, age 87, died in June.

Graham, who will turn 89 next month, had been hoping to make the trip at some point and even joked to the President that he would prefer to meet him in Crawford, Texas, rather than Washington. He told us in January that he was concerned about the President — and worried about the progress of the war in Iraq, where his grandson was fighting as an Army Ranger. The President called the preacher after Ruth's death, and last week finally managed to meet with him. "They shared fellowship and prayer and encouragement," said one well-placed source.

Graham first met the younger Bush in 1985, when the two men took a fateful walk on the beach in Maine that helped set the then 40-year-old Texas oilman on a path that led him to Christ. But of all his presidential friends, Graham was perhaps personally closest to the President’s father, who is now 83. The two men met in the 1960s and vacationed together often. Graham was also close to George H.W. Bush’s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, who died in 1992.

As a pastor, Graham was closest to Lyndon Johnson, who called him to the White House more than 20 times and relied on him heavily for pastoral comfort. During one visit to the Johnson ranch, he asked Graham to preach at his funeral and more or less told him what he wanted to say. Later, when LBJ was dying, he reminded his family where he wanted to be buried and pointed out the spot near his burial site where he wanted Graham to stand and give the final blessing.

Gibbs' and Duffy's book, The Preacher and the Presidents, was excerpted in TIME in August.