Due to health related issues, Rev. Billy Graham was not available to participate in the MSNBC special with an interview for the documentary, “JFK: The Day That Changed America.” However, he wanted to share his personal recollections of that day, and of JFK, as published in his book, “Just as I am.” Read an excerpt.
THE LAST TIME I was with Kennedy was at the 1963 National Prayer Breakfast. I had the flu.
“Mr. President, I don’t want to give you this bug that I’ve got, so I’m not going to talk right at your face.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said. “I talk to a lot of people all day long who have got all kinds of bugs.”
After I gave my short talk, and he gave his, we walked out of the hotel to his car together, as was always our custom. At the curb, he turned to me.
“Billy, could you ride back to the White House with me? I’d like to see you for a minute.”
“Mr. President, I’ve got a fever,” I protested. “Not only am I weak, but I don’t want to give you this thing. Couldn’t we wait and talk some other time?”
It was a cold, snowy day, and I was freezing as I stood there without my overcoat.
“Of course,” he said graciously.
His hesitation at the car door, and his request, haunt me still. What was on his mind? Should I have gone with him? It was an irrecoverable moment.
John Connally (a Democrat at the time) invited me to Texas to participate in his inauguration as governor on January 15, 1963. In late fall of that year, when I was back preaching in Houston, the governor come to my hotel room. He confided that he was concerned about President Kennedy’s forthcoming trip to Texas in November. He said that there was much hostility against the President in Texas and he feared a lukewarm, or even a negative, response.
Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in the 1964 election, and his conservative cause appeared to be developing a large groundswell in Texas. Kennedy planned his visit to build Democratic unity and help shore up the Democratic resistance.
Sometime toward the end of the second week in November, I unaccountably felt such a burden about the presidential visit to Dallas that I decided to phone our mutual friend, Senator Smathers, to tell him I really wanted to talk to the President. His secretary told me Senator Smathers was on the Senate floor and would call me back. Instead, he sent me a telegram that the President would get in touch with me directly. He thought I wanted to talk about the President’s invitation to another golf game in Florida that weekend; the game was off, he said, and would have to be rescheduled.
But all I wanted to tell him and the President was one thing: “Don’t go to Texas!”
I had an inner foreboding hat something terrible was going to happen. I told this to T. W. and Calvin Thielman, pastor of the Montreat Presbyterian Church, while were on the golf course one day (and before I put through the call to Smathers). But was such a strange feeling enough to justify the President’s attention?
WHERE I WAS WHEN I HEARD
In the early afternoon of November 22, I was playing golf with T.W., Lee Fisher, and Cliff Barrows at the local course in Black Mountain, North Carolina. We had just teed off for the fifth hole right next to the road when Loren Bridges, manager of WFGW, the Christian radio station we owned there, drove up and shouted that the President had been shot. Just then, the Black Mountain golf pro, Ross Taylor, came running out, shouting the same news.
We rushed to the WFGW studio, where dispatches were clacking over the wires. Loren handed me the latest Associated Press Teletype copy. The report was sketchy; hard information about the President’s condition was not available yet.
I asked Calvin Thielman to go on the air with me to pray for Kennedy and his family and to read Scripture. I also asked T.W. to call a friend of ours who was a doctor at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas to get the latest word.
As Calvin and I went on the air, T.W. came to the control room window and held a scrap of paper up against the glass. “He’s dead,” it said.
I dared not break such news to western North Carolina until a public announcement was made, which Walter Cronkite did over CBS three or four minutes later. Then, Calvin and I spoke of the President and prayed for his family and for the new President, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
At President Kennedy’s funeral the following Monday in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, I was invited to sit among friends of the Kennedy family. The question on everybody’s mind was, Why did it happen? Like everyone else, I was touched by the sight of the Kennedy children, Caroline and John, Jr. When John and I got acquainted decades later, I was struck by his resemblance to his father, in both personality and ability.
A different thought had haunted me the day before, when I stood in the capitol rotunda about thirty feet from Jackie and the family and watched the tearful faces of national and world leaders filing by. My friend Jim Bishop had just written a newspaper column about his last interview with Kennedy. It was hard not to think about his poignant quote from the late President: “There’s so little time and so much to do.”
BILLY GRAHAM AND JOHN F. KENNEDY
Billy Graham was first introduced by Hubert Humphrey to John F. Kennedy when he was still a Senator, some years before the 1960 election. Mr. Graham said, “One couldn’t help but like him personally.”
The evangelist became more closely acquainted with John F. Kennedy during the 1960 campaign, as Pierre Salinger, one of Kennedy’s aids, approached Mr. Graham about making a statement on tolerance of the Roman Catholic issue during the election. Mr. Graham declined, as he was afraid any statement he might make could be used as an implied political endorsement. Although he would not hesitate personally to vote for a Catholic if he was qualified, Mr. Graham did not want to become involved in the political wrangling. After turning down Mr. Salinger, Mr. Graham even received a call from John F. Kennedy himself asking for the statement, but Mr. Graham held firm. Likewise, Mr. Graham refused requests from various Protestant camps asking him to speak out against a Catholic candidate. Mr. Graham did his best to stay out of politics that year, as he was a friend of Richard Nixon’s, but didn’t feel it was right to outright endorse him, either.
Following the election, Mr. Graham received a call from Senator George Smathers of Florida, who said the President-elect wanted to talk with him. The planned a round of golf together, and Mr. Graham was delighted at the opportunity. On the evening Mr. Graham arrived in Florida, Mrs. Kennedy had just given birth to their son John, so the meeting with President-elect Kennedy had to be postponed.
Ten days before the inauguration, in January of 1961, Senator Smathers phoned again, and set another date for Mr. Graham to play golf and have lunch with the President-elect. They were at Joseph Kennedy’s home, and Mr. Kennedy told Mr. Graham that he had been invited to meet with President-elect Kennedy on his father’s recommendation. The elder Kennedys had witnessed the evangelist’s crusade in Stuttgart, Germany, and realized Mr. Graham’s influence with the public. They were hoping Mr. Graham could help heal the religious rift in the country brought about by the election. Mr. Graham told them that they underestimated God’s work in his ministry, but that he would do what he could to help.
After lunch, Jack himself drove them to the golf club, with Mr. Graham in the front seat beside him. He and Kennedy rode together in a golf cart, and Kennedy teased Mr. Graham about his golf game when he double bogeyed his first hole. “I thought you played better than that,” he said.
“Well, sir, when I’m not playing with the President-elect, I usually do,” Mr. Graham responded.
In the clubhouse afterward, they got into a lively discussion and Kennedy aired his view that the 60s would be filled with challenges - including Vietnam.
On their way back to the house, Kennedy asked Mr. Graham if he believed in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Mr. Graham said he most certainly did, then Kennedy asked, “Well, does my church believe it?” Mr. Graham told him it was in the church creeds, to which Kennedy replied “They don’t preach it. They don’t tell us much about it. I’d like to know what you think.”
Mr. Graham told Kennedy what the Bible said about Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and promise to return. “Only then,” Mr. Graham said, “are we going to have permanent peace.”
“Very interesting, ” Kennedy replied. “We’ll have to talk more about that someday.”
Kennedy then invited Mr. Graham to accompany him to a private party with many well-known socialites who wintered in Palm Beach. He was self-conscious in his golf clothes, but went anyway. Then Kennedy threw another surprise at him. He said there were about 300 media people waiting to hear a word from him at a local hotel, and asked Mr. Graham to come along. Mr. Graham felt honored, until Kennedy suddenly announced to the press, “I want to present to you Dr. Billy Graham, who’d going to answer some questions.” Surprised, Mr. Graham went to the podium and the media dived right into the religious controversy. Though Mr. Graham realized he was being used, he did not mind speaking out. “I don’t think Mr. Kennedy’s being a Catholic should be held against him by any Protestant,” he said. “They should judge him on his ability and his character. We should trust and support our new president.” Such a statement would have been divisive before the election, but justified after.
The dawn of the 1960s was a terribly difficult time for any world leader, Mr. Graham recalled, and he was encouraged that President Kennedy attended the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfasts at which Mr. Graham spoke each of Kennedy’s three years in Washington. Mr. Graham later learned Kennedy had said he was the only Protestant clergyman with whom he felt comfortable.
Several times Mr. Graham was invited to the Kennedy White House, though never to a state dinner or to the Kennedy’s personal quarters. Mr. Graham was most often invited to the Oval Office to speak with the President. One time, President Kennedy asked Mr. Graham to tell him how he talked through an interpreter, as President Kennedy had seen that on a television report on Mr. Graham’s crusades, and liked the style and method.
Mr. Graham said that President Kennedy endeared himself to him in many different ways during his short time in office. One day in Washington in late 1961, the President invited Mr. Graham and his assistant, Grady Wilson, to the Oval Office. They informed him of an upcoming crusade in Latin America the following January. “I’m going down there before that,” Kennedy said. “I’ll be your John the Baptist.” Kennedy offered whatever assistance he could in paving the way for that crusade, and indeed made it possible for some difficult meetings in Columbia to proceed.
The last time Mr. Graham saw President Kennedy was at the 1963 National Prayer Breakfast. Because Mr. Graham had the flu, he declined an offer to ride back to the White House with the President, not wanting to make him sick. To this day, that request haunts Mr. Graham, as he could tell the President really wanted to talk with him, and that turned out to be his last chance.
In the Fall of 1963, Mr. Graham was preaching a crusade in Houston, and had a chat with Texas Governor John Connally. He confided that he was worried about Kennedy’s upcoming trip to Texas, that there was too much hostility toward him in the state.
Around the second week of November, Mr. Graham became burdened about the upcoming trip to Dallas, so called Senator Smathers to get a message through that he wanted to talk with the President. Senator Smathers thought he was calling about another golf invitation that had to be rescheduled, but Mr. Graham really wanted to tell the President, “Don’t go to Texas!” He had an inner forboding that something terrible was going to happen, which he shared with his assistant and friend, T.W. Wilson, and local pastor Calvin Thielman. They wondered whether this strange feeling was enough to justify President Kennedy’s attention.
In the early afternoon of Nov. 22, Mr. Graham was playing golf near his home in North Carolina, when the manager of a local radio station drove up to them and shouted that the President had been shot. They rushed back to the studio to monitor the news coming across the wires. Mr. Graham and Rev. Thielman went on the air and prayed for the President and his family, while T.W. got on the phone to a friend who was a doctor at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. As Mr. Graham was on the air, T.W. held a piece of paper against the studio glass, “He’s dead.” Mr. Graham dared not break the news to North Carolinians until a public announcement was made, which it was by Walter Cronkite four minutes later.
Mr. Graham was invited to sit with the Kennedy family at the funeral the following Monday. As he listened to Cardinal Cushing’s reading of the Scripture, he was reminded of his conversation with John Kennedy back in Palm Beach about the Second Coming of Christ, and prayed that this would be true for President Kennedy.
The foregoing is excerpted from “Just As I Am,” by Billy Graham. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022