Franklin Graham talks about his last days with Billy Graham and what he misses most

Franklin Graham talks about his last days with Billy Graham and what he misses most
Franklin Graham was among the speakers March 2 at the Charlotte funeral of his father, Billy Graham. The younger Graham has just published a new book, "Through My Father's Eyes," which he wrote with Donna Lee Toney. (Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - Franklin Graham recalled the last day with his famous father and what he's missed most in the 10 weeks since Billy Graham died at age 99 as part of a wide-ranging interview this week about his new book — "Through My Father's Eyes."

Franklin Graham also spoke to the Observer about charges that he's too easy on President Donald Trump, the future of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and why he thinks one of the biggest blemishes on his father's legacy was a bum rap.

Graham said he started writing his book nearly 12 years ago. It's about the lessons he learned from "Daddy," as he called the world-famous, Charlotte-born evangelist. Starting with some basic ones: Embrace a doubt-free Christian faith and believe that the Bible, which he says the elder Graham knew from "from cover to cover," is the infallible word of God.

Father and son were last together on Feb. 18, a Sunday - the day Franklin always drove from his home in Boone to the Grahams' family homestead in mountainous Montreat.

"I said, 'Daddy, I won't be here this week. I'm going to be down in Texas, but I'll try to come back next Sunday and see you.' And I told him a little bit about some things that had happened at the (Billy Graham) library, about people that had gotten saved. I knew he'd be interested in hearing that. He didn't really say anything. He just had his head bowed like he was snoozing. And I noticed his hand was shaking. And I said, 'Daddy, are you cold?' And he went 'Uh.' So I got up and got him a blanket and put it around him. Within 5 minutes, his arm quit shaking, and he started snoring. And that's the last time I saw him."

Billy Graham died the following Wednesday. His son got the call in Dallas, where he was attending flight school.

What does he miss most now that his father — the namesake of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — is gone?

"It's a little bit lonely on Sundays because I always looked forward to driving down just to see him," Franklin Graham told the Observer. "In the last year, he just basically quit talking. But his mind was still good. So even if he didn't talk to me, I would sit beside him and I'd talk to him. And I would tell him where I had been or what I was getting ready to do the next week. I would just try to inform him so he would feel like he was still part of it."

Franklin Graham, who will turn 66 in July, said there are no plans to change anything at the BGEA, which he now leads.

"We're not changing nothing," he said. "And we're not going to re-invent ourselves and we're not going to try to come up with a new face or a new voice for evangelism. We're just going to keep on doing what we've been doing. ... We're going to call people to put their faith and trust in Christ and to turn from their sins. "

But one thing is different, Graham said. His father, who started the organization in 1950 and turned it into an international ministry, is no longer there to pray for him.

"The last few years of my father's life — though he could not preach, he shifted his ministry to praying," his son said. "Not only praying for the leaders of our country, but praying for our family and our ministry around the world. That's why I felt it was so important to see him on Sundays, to fill him in on what we were doing and things we were working on. So he could be praying for us. If I miss anything, it would be my father's prayers. I sense a void there in my life. He's not there any longer, praying for me."

Besides laying out the lessons his father taught him over the years, Graham also uses his new book to try to clear Billy Graham of what many consider one of the biggest blemishes on his record: His comments about Jews during a 1972 conversation with then-President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.

In 2002, decades after that White House visit, the National Archives released a tape of the conversation, in which Nixon, Graham and Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman appeared to complain about how Jews "totally dominated" the media, in Nixon's words.

In the conversation, Graham also seemed to blame Jews for the R-rated movies coming out of Hollywood: "And they're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff. ... This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain."

In his book, Franklin Graham argues that Billy Graham was not speaking about Jews, but about Hollywood producers of the time, some of whom were Jewish and some who were not.

"My father said that he was uncomfortable with some of the people in Hollywood and if they only knew how he really felt. The Harvey Weinsteins of that day," Graham told the Observer. "His entire life, my father (had) been a friend to the Jewish people ... and (had) defended Israel."

He had, which is why the tape was such a bombshell. Though Franklin Graham claims his father spoke only about Hollywood producers, the tape shows that the elder Graham seemed to go along with Nixon's belief in the old anti-Semitic stereotype that the news media was controlled by Jews.

Graham joined in after the conversation switched to the so-called Jewish control of the New York Times, Time magazine and other major publications. Graham spoke of his friendship with Abe Rosenthal, then the editor of the New York Times, and also said: "I mean not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know I am friendly to Israel but they don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country."

When the tape was released, Billy Graham first said he did not remember the conversation. But he later personally apologized to a group of rabbis.

"In hindsight, my father would have done things a lot differently," Franklin Graham said of the incident. "But he didn't even remember the conversation."

One lesson Billy Graham himself learned after getting burned by his close relationship to Nixon well into the Watergate scandal was to keep some distance from politics. He continued to pastor to U.S. presidents, but refused, for example, to give his seal of approval to the Religious Right from the 1980s onward.

It's a lesson Franklin Graham's critics say he hasn't learned as he registers strong support of President Donald Trump — and opposition to many liberal Democrats — in his daily tweets and Facebook posts.

His answer?

"People may think I'm closer to President Trump than I am," he said. "I want to be a friend to him and if I can help him on something, I'll do that. But I don't go to Washington except a couple of times a year. And I'm usually there with a group of other people. But I think we try to pray for the president. And I want to encourage Christians to pray for him. He's the president. If he does a good job, you, me, all of us Americans will benefit. If he screws up, it's going to affect all of us in a negative way."

Billy Graham was the face of Christian evangelicalism for decades. Now his son is one of several high-profile evangelical leaders at a time when that word — evangelical — has become controversial because conservative Protestant voters have become part of Trump's base. Even some fellow Christians say that, in exchange for a Supreme Court justice and some conservative policy changes, Graham and the others give Trump a pass for his crude name-calling and his alleged affairs with a porn actress and a Playboy model..

"These things (with other women) happened long before he was president. Twelve years ago, I think," Graham said about the criticism. "I think everybody in America knew about his past. when they voted for him. So I don't think there's anything new. I'm not giving him a pass. I don't condone immoral behavior. But I also know that that immoral behavior was 12 years ago. ... If those things were happening (while Trump is in the White House), I would be the first person to speak out against it. There are a lot of things in my past that I would have done differently. And I think we all ... have regrets. And I'm sure the president has many regrets about things he's done in his past life."

But what about Trump's personal attacks — not the kind of language heard in a church?

"He's not my preacher, either. He's a communicator, and he knows how to get your attention," Graham said. "I think he's got Kim Jong Un''s attention. ... Even President Putin said, 'You'd better respect him.' Our enemies have to respect him. Syrians, when they crossed that line, he took action. When they did it again, he waited and made sure he had our allies behind him. So, people think he's happenstance and he's careless and you can't trust him with nuclear weapons and that kind of stuff — it's just foolishness. He waited and got our allies. And then he took action with the French and the British. I thought that was extremely wise. We need to pray for him, that God will give him wisdom in these decisions that affect our lives. We need a successful Donald Trump for our own good."

Franklin Graham was among the clergy who spoke at Trump's inauguration.. And Trump sat in the front row at Billy Graham's funeral in Charlotte, along with Vice President Mike Pence, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and their wives.

In his book, Franklin Graham reports that, on the morning of the funeral, the U.S. Air Force told the president that, because a winter storm had whipped up 70 mph winds. they would not be able to fly to Charlotte. But Trump insisted, the book says, telling the Air Force "I have to go!"

So Air Force One and Air Force Two were moved to Dulles, and the presidential party made the funeral. "I personally appreciated that great effort they made to come," Graham writes in his book. "It is doubtful almost any other past president would have gone that extra mile."

Like his wife Ruth, who died in 2007, Billy Graham was buried on the grounds of the library bearing his name, in a pine plywood casket was handmade by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

In the Observer interview, Graham was also asked about . . .

What will happen to Billy Graham's home in Montreat: "Not sure. The Billy Graham (Evangelistic) Association owns the home. But I'm certainly going to include all the family members before we make any decisions with the house."

What people would be surprised to learn about Billy Graham: "Billy Graham never wanted to be famous.. .. My father never wanted that for himself. And he never saw himself as a celebrity. He saw himself just as a farm boy from Charlotte. And I think that's why God blessed him so much. Because Billy Graham did not want attention given to Billy Graham. He wanted God to have the glory. When we talked about building the library, my father said 'No. I don't want my name on it.' I said, 'Dad, I'm not going to put your name on it. I'm just going to have a cross on the front of a building that looks like a barn. And people will have to go through the foot of the cross to get into the library.' He said, 'I like that. I'll agree to that, but I don't want this to be about Billy Graham.' I said, 'Dad, it's going to be about the message that you preached.' And that's what the library is."

Any retirement plans: "At 66, if I have health. can I make it to 76? If I have the health, could I make it to 86? I don't know. But as long as I have health, I want to continue. I have no intention of retiring. I mean, what would I do?"

Whether his son Will Graham, also an evangelist, will someday take over leadership of the BGEA: "I don't know. God's using Will. He just finished preaching last night in Johnson City (Tenn.) and had a great meeting over there. So I don't know exactly how God will use Will in the future. But I certainly have a lot of confidence in him and I believe God has his hand on him. I pray that he'll continue to use him."

How his style is more combative than his father's was: "Remember — I'm also my mother's son as well as my father's son. And my mother was — I don't want to say had more backbone. But I think growing up (the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries) in China, with the Japanese invasion and bombs dropping — she saw all these things as a young girl. My mama was just tough. And I believe right is right and wrong is wrong. I think it's important to speak out on moral issues in our culture. Because the church should have an impact on culture. But, unfortunately, today, culture is having an impact on the church. I think it's important to speak out .on moral issues, whether it's abortion or same-sex marriage."

On the widely held view that Billy Graham mellowed and became less judgmental as he aged: "My father never changed his views. He believed sin was sin. He believed that abortion was murder. He believed that homosexuality was sin. He did not mellow as related to sin.. ... But I think when you get older, you get a little wiser. And you begin to maybe get a little more focused on what you want to communicate. And I think my father, in the latter years of his life, wanted to communicate more clearly than ever that Jesus was the way, and he was the truth and he was the life. And that Jesus came to die for sinners. ... And he rose from the dead."