Billy Graham reaped a media harvest through artless charm, more than promotional gambits

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As a flood of obits is proclaiming, Billy Graham had remarkable impact. He brought revival meetings from the margins back into the cultural mainstream with unprecedented audiences at home and abroad, changed Protestantism’s dynamics by turning much of fighting “fundamentalism” into the palatable and vastly successful “evangelical” movement and, along the way, befriended and counseled an incredible lineup of politicos and celebrities.

Not least among the accomplishments was winning “good press” for his meetings and his movement. Coverage was not only vast but fond -- even from journalists with little regard for his old-fashioned, unwavering beliefs that that personal faith in Jesus Christ is the “one way” to salvation and that the Bible is God’s unique and infallible word to modern humanity.

How did he do it?

Graham’s well-chosen media team certainly knew how to manage all the usual promotional tactics. Its most spectacular feat of organizational moxie occurred in 1995, when his meetings in Puerto Rico were beamed by satellite TV to sites in 175 countries.

However, The Religion Guy would maintain the secret to media appeal was not such benign artifice but the artless charm of the man himself, his evident sincerity, and, above all, his humility. In these times of political narcissism, it is remarkable to reflect that one of the most famous men on the planet managed to carefully leash his ego, not to mention remain free of scandal. Perhaps only prayer could have accomplished such a thing.  

The Guy reported on the preacher’s last revival meeting (New York City, 2005) for The Associated Press, and 39 years before that had first joined the Graham beat for one of his most interesting forays, covering it for Christianity Today (the evangelical magazine made possible by Graham’s connections).

It was his “crusade” in Greenville, S.C., the home of his harshest critics, the leaders at arch-fundamentalist Bob Jones University, which the young Graham had briefly attended. The day Billy hit town, The Guy attended a BJU chapel service where the preacher’s sermon text was 2 Peter 2:22: “The dog returns to his own vomit.”

Nice.

The Guy’s single most memorable moment with Graham occurred when we taped an interview at his Montreat, N.C., office for a lengthy Good Friday piece on the PBS-TV “NewsHour.” Graham invited us up to his mountainside log cabin home (cleverly designed by wife Ruth) for sandwiches. Returning back down after lunch our cameraman said it was one of the most remarkable encounters of his career.

This media veteran had filmed many of the nation’s and world’s potentates and knew that Graham in his particular realm was as big a big shot as any of them. But in contrast with all the others, Graham did not see him as part of some anonymous backdrop crew but a guy he was genuinely interested in. How did you get into this work? What’s the toughest part? Is all your time on the road hard for your wife and children? And so forth.

Must be that back on that boyhood dairy farm near Charlotte, young “Billy Frank” was bred in southern graciousness by William Franklin Graham Senior and wife Morrow. To that he added an interest in people that was all his own.

It wasn’t just in city newsrooms that his humility paid off. Graham had a solid self-assessment as he rocketed to fame and bore the heavy load of being a religious example heeded by millions. He knew what he didn't know, and was usually wise enough to appreciate and rely upon better-equipped advisers. On the rare occasions when he stumbled, he was on his own without such backup. His mistakes were few, and he owned them.

As many will be saying in these days, we may never see his like again.

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