The television talking heads all agreed that the election was over, which ignited celebrations among the staff and supporters of winner Richard Nixon -- including the world's most famous evangelist. "We did it," proclaimed the Rev. Billy Graham, according to iconoclastic journalist Joe McGinniss in "The Selling of the President 1968." Graham, he added, went "directly into Nixon's room, without explaining whether 'we' meant Billy Graham and Richard Nixon or Billy Graham and God or perhaps all three together."
Years later, a repentant Graham said he wept and became ill when he heard Nixon's paranoid, profanity-laced chatter on the Watergate tapes. While "America's pastor" kept meeting with presidents -- as he has with every Oval Office occupant since Harry Truman -- he vowed never again to become that attached to a candidate.
The question, for Graham's critics and even some supporters, is whether the national advertising campaign launched on Oct. 18th by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association -- now led by son Franklin Graham -- has crossed that line. The target audience: Readers of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, key swing-state newspapers and church bulletins nationwide.
"The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren and this great nation is crucial," proclaims one ad. "As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.
"I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."
It's easy to read between those lines, noted sociologist William Martin, author of "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story."
"Billy Graham representatives note that the ads do not mention a specific candidate or party -- an observation intended more for the IRS than for the target audience," wrote Martin, at Christianity Today online. "Given that former Gov. Mitt Romney opposes same-sex marriage and President Barack Obama supports it (and by doing so, has -- to use Franklin Graham's words -- "shaken his fist" at God), the ads leave no doubt about their intent."
There's more. Romney aides claim that, at the end of a recent meeting with the candidate, the evangelist promised: "I'll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that."
Months earlier, the Graham organization also released statements urging North Carolina voters to back a state constitutional amendment on marriage and an appeal for support of "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," after the company's president drew fire for defending traditional Christian doctrines on sex and marriage.
Meanwhile, former Graham-organization webmaster Steve Knight has said -- in a much-circulated Huffington Post essay -- that enough is enough. It's significant that Knight now works with a denomination on the religious left, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
"My concern is that here's how things like this continue to work," warned Knight. "Franklin Graham (or Franklin and his sister Anne Graham Lotz) have an agenda (in all ... of these cases, "traditional marriage"), they get a BGEA copywriter to draft the text, ... Franklin approves the copy and-or design, then Franklin drives out to Little Piney Cove (Billy's cabin home outside of Asheville, N.C.) and holds the piece of paper in front of Billy and asks, 'Daddy, can we publish this?' And Billy nods (or whatever he's capable of doing at this point in his life), and Franklin goes back and publishes this stuff with his good father's name all over it."
Veteran Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross has vehemently denied this and other claims that Graham has, in effect, become a puppet used and abused by Franklin Graham and others.
"In the years since his last public crusade, Billy Graham has been increasingly burdened by society's moral decline and the need for renewal in our culture and revival in the church," noted Ross, in the Christianity Today forum. "Because he considers the institution of marriage as the cornerstone of society, he is opposed to any redefinition of marriage -- which he sees not as a political issue but rather a matter of religious freedom."
Thus, Ross added, Graham personally approved the use of these quotations in which he is heard "challenging citizens -- particularly the faith community -- on how to vote, rather than for whom to vote."