He's preached to every president since Harry Truman. It is one of the most unique series of friendships in modern politics, counseling these leaders under the tremendous stresses of war, politics and personal scandals. But evangelist Billy Graham simply refers to the last 11 presidents as his "friends."
"Each one I've known long before they ever became president, been in their homes many times, always called them by their first names, until they became president," Graham told Charlie Gibson at an extraordinary lunch with the three living former presidents, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, who came to help dedicate the new Billy Graham library in Charlotte, N.C., in May.
They are just three of the 11 presidents that Graham has known. The 88-year-old has been a guest at the White Houses of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as well.
And his influence is especially felt in the current administration. When asked where he would be without Graham, George W. Bush said "I wouldn't be president."
"It was just a conversation," said the younger Bush about a talk with Graham in the mid-'80s that changed his life. During the pivotal conversation Bush recalled saying, "'You know, Billy, I'm longing for something.' And I know that he sent me a Bible I still have. All I can tell you is that as a result of being inspired by Billy Graham … I started reading the Bible and shortly after, I quit drinking."
That moment is part of a long kinship between the pastor and the Bushes; Graham has been friends with the Bush family for 50 years.
"I remember the first time I saw him. … I was shocked by the eyes. They were … they're so penetrating," said Barbara Bush, who along with her husband, George, hosted Billy and Ruth Graham during many Augusts at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
And another first lady remembers being struck by his presence as well. "He is to this day, so charismatic and just immensely attractive to everyone because of his spirit as well as these extraordinary, almost Old Testament prophet looks, that he has," Sen. Hillary Clinton told Gibson.
Graham became a crucial advisor to the New York senator as her marriage was publicly challenged during her husband's impeachment scandal. She revealed to Charles Gibson, "[Graham] is one of the people who made a real difference to me personally."
Bill Clinton agreed. "First, on his own, he wrote to us. He wrote us a letter encouraging us to pray and to work and to stay together. And he knew we loved each other."
"He was someone who could understand both Bill and me and there aren't many people apparently, who can," Hillary Clinton said. "So I was delighted to spend time with him."
Graham received criticism for publicly forgiving Clinton, but it was not the first time he reached out and offered forgiveness to a public figure.
He also urged Gerald Ford to pardon Richard Nixon. Graham's relationship with Nixon was the center of his most public controversy, when tapes made of a conversation he had with Nixon in 1972 were released five years ago.
In referring to Jews and the media, Graham said, among other things, "This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country's going to go down the drain." He apologized for his comments, saying he had no memory of the conversation and "They do not reflect my views and I apologize for any offense."