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Graham Neutral on Clinton, Dole

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From Associated Press

The Rev. Billy Graham has learned something from six decades of visiting the White House and meeting 10 presidents: when to keep quiet.

In this election year, he will not say whether he prefers President Clinton or Bob Dole.

“I don’t want to get into any kind of politics--right or left or Republican or Democrat,” Graham said recently at his rustic mountain home in Buncombe County. “Because I experienced that a few times in my years, that you can get into trouble real fast.”

“Bill Clinton has been a friend of mine, he claims, since he was 7 years old,” he said, referring to a Graham crusade Clinton attended. “The Doles have been guests in our home. We’ve known Mrs. Dole since she was a girl. Bob Dole, I’ve known him for I don’t know how long. We think a lot of them and we think a lot of the Clintons. And we’re going to stay absolutely neutral.”

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Graham has never formally endorsed a presidential candidate, but he has certainly supported some more than others during his career as an evangelist.

He quietly backed Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1960 over John Kennedy, mostly because Nixon was a friend and because Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism worried Protestants who feared the pope would interfere with his decision-making.

“I have done it in years gone by and I have not called anybody’s name,” Graham said. The only time he endorsed a candidate, he recalled, was when he mentioned John Connally as his choice for governor at a Texas crusade.

“That’s the only real political statement I ever made and I even regretted that,” he said.

Graham’s other forays into politics increased his stature as a confidant to presidents, but also brought controversy.

Naivete in divulging the details to the press of his first meeting with Harry Truman stung both him and the president. His tendencies to support the Vietnam War and Lyndon Johnson led to the wrath of detractors. And Nixon’s presidency left him crushed by the revelations of Watergate and distanced him ever since from Washington.

In a biography, Graham said of Nixon: “Maybe I was naive at that time. Maybe I was used.”

Graham, who led crusade meetings in Charlotte recently, has had both criticism and sympathy for Clinton.

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In 1994, he told newspaper editors meeting in Washington that the press had gone too far in probing Clinton’s personal life and called for “a wall of prayer around Bill Clinton.” But earlier this year, he criticized Clinton for vetoing a bill that would have outlawed certain late-term abortions.

Graham has participated in seven inaugurations, including Clinton’s in 1993. The night before the inauguration, Graham and his family had a private dinner and spent the night at the White House with then-President George Bush.

Even as a majority of evangelical Christians link themselves to Republicans, he says he is not an ardent backer of groups like the Christian Coalition.

“I try to stay out of those things, although many of those people are friends of mine,” he said. “I think Christians should vote. Whether they’re voting Republican or Democrat, I don’t think I have a right to tell them who to vote for.”

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