Aug. 8, 2007 — -- 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."
Graham's supporters say that conversation was an aberration.
Jimmy Carter told Gibson: "That was a mistake he made. Since he was so forgiving of others when they made a mistake, I think that, that the natural thing for all of us to do is forgive him because he has publicly apologized for that comment … It may be that President Nixon's feelings along those lines may have influenced Billy Graham in a private conversation."
Other presidents say Graham's role was not one of advisor. "I've never called him on a specific issue. I wouldn't be afraid to if I needed to, but his influence is bigger than a specific issue as far as I'm concerned. He warms your soul," George W. Bush said. "He reminds one of the greater purpose of life. Just talking to the man is beneficial to me."
Bill Clinton said, "I doubt that many presidents wanted to be around him because they thought it would help them politically. I think that they really felt and hoped that by being with Billy Graham, they might have more strength for the work at hand."
He has preached to 215 million people in 185 countries, but Graham does not have a church or an official congregation. In a sense, the presidents, politicians and their families have been his flock. And it is a role he takes seriously.
"I think he thinks the men who get [to the presidency] need the blessing of God in order to do the job," said Michael Duffy, co-author, along with Nancy Gibbs, of a new book about Graham "The Preacher & the Presidents."
Graham has attended or participated in 10 inaugurals since 1953 and has spoken at the funerals of Johnson, Nixon and Ford.
Gibbs said these close relationships developed because "the presidents saw someone who really understood what they were up against and who they could talk to very confidentially."
He's also had a role in the faith of many of these men before their rise to power. A 13-year-old Clinton saw Graham preach in a racially divided Little Rock, Ark., in 1959.
Graham refused to segregate the audience and Clinton remembered how it affected him. "I desperately wanted it to be different and, and he, by what I thought was an act of grace, showed that it could be different."
Yet there are tantalizing questions about Graham. Should a pastor — of any faith — get so close to power?
Did presidents exploit Graham — or did Graham exploit them?
"Every president wanted to be seen with Billy Graham … because he could convey … them a blessing that no one else in American life could," said Duffy.
In a country founded on the separation of church and state, what role does faith play in its most powerful office?
"I don't think the president is any different than anybody else when it comes to wonder," George H.W. Bush told Gibson.
"I prayed more and needed more [spiritual] counseling when I was president than any other four years of my life." said Carter. And George W. Bush said, "I don't say you can be president without faith, I'm sure some have done it. In my case, I don't see how you can be president without belief."
To read more from TIME's Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, authors of "The Preacher & the Presidents," click here.