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2009 Conversations

2008 Conversations

Nancy Gibbs

Bruce Barry

Zollie L. Smith Jr.

Arlyn Pember

Gaylon Wampler

Nichole Nordeman

George O. Wood


David Aikman

Thomas Trask

Charles Crabtree

Russ Taff

Earl Creps

Tri Robinson

Ted Baehr

Thomas A. Grey

Charles Marshall

Steve Pike

Thomas E. Trask

Margaret Becker

Michael G. Spielman

John Ashcroft

Michael Landon, Jr.

Jerry Jenkins

Bear Rinehart

Beverly Lewis

John Rowland

David Barton

David Crowder

Randy Singer

Thomas E. Trask and Juleen Turnage

Chris Rice

Richard Dobbins

Patty Byrd Keating

David Gough

Ed Stetzer

Troy Polamalu

Ron Dicianni

Roundtable: Wilkerson, Smith, Canales

2006 Conversations


Interviewing the preacher to the presidents

Nancy Gibbs has written more than 100 cover stories for Time magazine, where she serves as editor at large. Her compelling writing style in narrative pieces such as "The Abortion Campaign You Never Hear About" and "Being Thirteen: What's on Their Minds?" routinely turns complex issues of the day into understandable must-read instructional experiences.

In a 22-year career, Gibbs, 47, has devoted most of her writing time to politics and major news events. Her book, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, written with Michael Duffy — another 22-year Time veteran — came out in August. The authors spent nearly three years working on the fascinating behind-the-scenes book, each taking only a three-month leave while continuing their magazine duties.

Gibbs recently talked to TPE News Editor John W. Kennedy.

TPE: How did you simultaneously write a 350-page book while working full-time for the magazine?

GIBBS: In reporting and writing the book, Michael Duffy and I came across many discoveries that turned into magazine stories. When Gerald Ford died, for instance, we had learned quite a bit that we didn't know about his spiritual life. We were able to write a story called "The Other Born-Again President?" about how he balanced faith and politics. Everyone of course thinks of Jimmy Carter. The article got an enormous response because it was an aspect of President Ford that people had not known. These types of surprises kept happening along the way.

tpe: How many people did you interview for the book?

GIBBS: Many dozens. Our doing it really depended on Mr. Graham being willing to talk to us. The people around him are understandably protective of his time and energy because he is quite frail. He isn't doing interviews anymore, and they are protective of his reputation and the legacy he will have. They were aware this was the opportunity while he was still alive to reflect on the extraordinary life he lived and the lives he touched.

Once they became comfortable trusting us with his stories, all the former living presidents and so many of their aides and family members agreed to talk to us. This story — how one man ended up ministering to every president back to the Second World War — had never been told.

tpe: Why did Billy Graham give access to you in particular?

GIBBS: It helped that we were from Time magazine. Mr. Graham credited founder Henry Luce with playing a significant part in the growth of his ministry. We went to Mr. Graham's office in North Carolina, and he had three covers of Time framed on his wall, including a cover story I wrote in 1993.

tpe: The book has been well received.

GIBBS: We've been gratified and a little surprised. We felt with a book about the intersection of religion and politics there would be people on both sides of our often-polarized political debate who would take issue with us for being too hard or too easy on Mr. Graham. We tried hard to be fair.

The first time we sat down with Mr. Graham, he said, "I hope you will tell the good and the bad." I found that an amazing instruction and liberating. He wasn't looking to airbrush his history.

tpe: What surprised you most in your research?

GIBBS: Virtually every president was raised in a more religious house than we realized, except for Jimmy Carter, whose identity was already that of a Sunday School teacher. We did not know about Harry Truman's personal faith; we did not know that Dwight Eisenhower was raised by parents who became Jehovah's Witnesses; we did not know how much Lyndon Johnson wrestled with his faith; we did not know how devout Richard Nixon's Quaker mother was. The stories of the strong religious foundations these presidents had, especially because of their mothers, went on and on.

Also, we discovered the private nature of the presidency. When a candidate becomes Mr. President, all his relationships change. It's very hard for a president to show doubts, to be able to ask stupid questions, to find someone to really talk to. In a remarkable way, Graham created a safe place where presidents could talk about basic questions and not have to worry about reading it the next day in the newspapers.

tpe: Some evangelicals criticized Billy Graham for not preaching against abortion and homosexuality.

GIBBS: Rev. Graham was criticized for not being tough enough on presidents when he had this extraordinary access to them — that he didn't confront them about the war, civil rights, abortion, whatever concerns the left and the right had. They wanted someone with Graham's back door pass to be speaking the truth to power. This wasn't the way he saw the role.

tpe: In the book you show how he felt his anti-communism campaign in the 1950s jeopardized the gospel.

GIBBS: He said to us that he was so caught up in anti-communism it distracted him from the gospel. As his ministry went on, he became wary of speaking out on a topic that would detract from the gospel. He really worked hard to keep his message all about Jesus, not the policies the liberals wanted him to be speaking about in the '60s and '70s or the conservatives in the '80s and '90s.

tpe: The evangelist learned lessons about being too close to power when he initially backed Johnson on the Vietnam War and Nixon on Watergate.

GIBBS: He did have a weakness for politics. Certainly after Nixon he became aware of the damage it could do to the ministry. He became much more disciplined about not being identified with one party or the other.

Even though he was close friends with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when Bill Clinton wanted him to pray at his inauguration he said, "I will be there. The Bible tells us to pray for those in authority." He got all sorts of critical letters asking, "How can you endorse a president who endorses abortion?" His attitude was, I will pray for any president. Those in power need prayer.

tpe: The book mentions how he could talk to Bill Clinton as no one else could.

GIBBS: That's a remarkable friendship. Graham was a childhood hero of Bill Clinton, who secretly tithed to Billy Graham's crusades as a teenager. His idea of a cool date when he and Hillary were in law school was to go hear a Graham crusade. When he was governor of Arkansas, Clinton sought him out to hold a crusade in the state. So when Clinton reached the White House, he already had a fully established friendship with Graham.

We had no idea how many of these relationships — the Johnsons, the Reagans, the Bushes — went back to the '50s, long before they were near the White House.

tpe: Do you have a faith background?

GIBBS: I was raised a Presbyterian, and was a deacon and elder at New York's Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

TPE: How did you get started in the business?

GIBBS: I was in graduate school in England, sending off letters to Time and Newsweek offering to empty the wastebaskets. It took about a year after I got back into the country to get Time to hire me as a part-time fact-checker. I made friends with colleagues who were enormously generous with their time in showing me the ropes. I got a sense of what makes a good story and how to approach it. Then I became a writer.

TPE: What are your favorite stories to write?

GIBBS: I like writing breaking-news stories, the startling, often shattering events such as 9-11, Katrina, Columbine. A news magazine is often the first chance people have to sit down and think about what that event means to them. It's important to write about not just what happened, but to try to capture why people respond the way they do when a natural disaster or a terrible crime occurs.

Also, I sometimes get to do stories that are at the intersection of politics, values, religion and ethics, and sometimes science and business. Stem cells can be written about as a scientific, political or ethical quandary.

I've managed to avoid the tabloid stories that occupy cable news. I'm grateful for that.

TPExtra: Read an exerpt from Nancy Gibbs' The Preacher and the Presidents
TPExtra: Photos of Billy Graham with past U.S. presidents

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