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Graham Says Media Magnified Nixon’s Failings and Defeats

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comparing Richard M. Nixon to King David and Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Billy Graham on Wednesday said Nixon is not a “tragic figure” but a leader whose failings and defeats were greatly magnified by the glare of television cameras.

In an interview with The Times, the worldwide evangelist said he is still baffled by the Watergate controversy that forced the resignation of his longtime friend and golfing buddy 16 years ago. He predicted that future historians will not consider Watergate a constitutional crisis as Nixon’s foes did in 1974.

“The only thing that bothered me about the whole thing was the language that he used on the tapes,” Graham said, referring to transcripts of secretly recorded conversations in the Oval Office.

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The tapes provided what some considered evidence of Nixon’s attempt to cover up the Watergate break-in and revealed the former President’s use of profanity. The phrase “expletive deleted"--substituted for profanity by transcribers of the tapes--became a popular joke throughout the country.

“I didn’t know and none of his close friends ever knew that he even knew some of those words,” Graham said. “I feel it wasn’t the real Nixon. And, of course, I believe in supernatural powers, of both good and evil, and I think some of these were at work at the time.”

Such struggles are not unusual for national leaders, said Graham, who flew to Southern California to offer the dedicatory prayer at the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace today in Yorba Linda. He said he considered the opening of the library to be the pinnacle of Nixon’s career and a manifestation that most of the American people have forgiven the once-disgraced leader.

“Throughout the history of Israel, the leaders of Judah and Israel were always up and down,” he said.

Yet none of the Old Testament patriarchs or Lincoln were, like Nixon, forced to contend with a relentless press corps that broadcasted political problems and personal failings, he said.

“Look at David,” Graham said of the biblical hero who slew the giant Goliath. “He had to run and hide. And then he committed a murder and he committed adultery, which was abhorrent to God. But God forgave David and David is considered one of the greatest kings that ever lived in the history of Judaism.

“If we would have had the cameras on David in those days, they might have rebelled against him. We would have had black headlines.”

After 16 years, Graham said, the American public is still confused about what drove Nixon from office.

“I have read a lot about Watergate, but I still don’t understand it,” Graham said. “I don’t understand why it became such a big thing, and neither do the people around the world.”

Graham first met Nixon in 1950, when the then-California congressman asked the evangelist to join him for a game of golf. Over the years, Graham said, the friendship grew to the point where he gave the invocation at Nixon’s inauguration, held private White House church services during the Vietnam War and gave the eulogy for Nixon’s mother, Hannah.

Despite the friendship, the dark days of Watergate resulted in a breach in the relationship, Graham said. Nixon steadfastly refused to take his calls or to see him, even when he flew to Washington three days before the former President resigned.

Nixon continued to refuse his calls in the ensuing months, when he lay near death in a San Clemente hospital after a bout of phlebitis.

“My wife rented an airplane, and it had a sign on it, ‘Nixon: God loves you and so do we,’ and flew it back and forth in front of the hospital,” Graham said.

About six months after Nixon left office, Graham said, the former President unexpectedly called and invited him for a visit in San Clemente.

“It was just a natural evening,” Graham said. “He’s a man that can rebound very fast from defeats and problems like that. I think he took it in its historical stride.”


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