Thursday, February 22, 2018

How Billy Graham got me fired

The church at Gloucester by Childe Hassam (Met).
     Rev. Billy Graham died Wednesday, and the Sun-Times posted the obituary I wrote about him. A number of  readers in their comments lashed out at him as an anti-Semite, though I think the truth is more complicated than that. He was a presidential sycophant. Yes, he was caught on tape running down Jews with Nixon. But the reason, in my estimation, is more that Graham agreed with pretty much anything any president had to say, out of habit and self-preservation, rather than any particular hatred of Jews.  If Nixon had carried on about how much he loved Jews, and how great they were for America, Graham would have agreed with that too.
      While being a toady was only one aspect of Graham generally failing to do his moral duty, he had his positive moments too, particularly as he got older. No, he didn't strangle his son Franklin, which would have been a true service to humanity. But he could stand up to wrongs that weren't coming from the Oval Office, such as this episode I recount in a 2000 column.

     I've always liked the Rev. Billy Graham. Even though an offhand comment he once made to me ended up getting me fired.
     But I'll save that tale for the end.
     I like Billy Graham because he speaks and acts as if Jesus Christ really meant all that stuff about love and forgiveness, and wasn't just filling time between miracles.
     Graham passed unscathed through an era when many lesser preachers were ruined by scandal. The Swaggarts and Bakkers who either got too big or too rich or just stopped being ministers and became politicians or entertainers or, to be blunt, clowns.
     I'm not saying that Graham is perfect. He likes the halls of power, a lot, and found it easier to baptize Dwight D. Eisenhower than to add his public support for Civil Rights. He was so busy playing kissy-face with Lyndon Johnson that he never realized that a moral man, a man of God, might find reason to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam.
     But his heart is in the right place, generally. He kept himself apart from the aggressive, one might almost say predatory, brand of evangelical Christianity, as best represented by the Southern Baptist Convention, which roiled the waters of interfaith comity by announcing that they would go to Chicago this summer and save Jews and Muslims and other heathen from the eternal hellfire that awaits us.
     Graham gave the Southern Convention the brush off this week.
     "I normally defend my denomination," he said. "I'm loyal to it. But I have never targeted Muslims. I have never targeted Jews."
     He doesn't say the reason, but it's plain. To do so is offensive. It's one thing to thrum your religion as the bright light and infallible road to happiness. All religions do that.
     It is a very different matter to single out particular creeds as being extra worthy of salvation.
     But I'm running out of space, and I haven't told my story about Graham costing me a job. I was the opinion page editor of the old Wheaton Daily Journal, and it fell to me to interview the great man during one of his forays home to his alma mater, Wheaton College.
     The interview went well; as I said, I like Graham. At the end he stood, offered his hand, and said: "You know, I'm friends with Helen Copley"—the owner of the Copley Newspapers, of which the Journal was the absolute smallest—"I don't get to see her as much as I'd like; next time you see her, say hello for me."
     Well, of course I had never seen Helen Copley. I was never going to see Helen Copley. She was planted out at Copley headquarters in San Diego and was never going to show up at the Daily Journal on Schmale Road. But I was amused by imagining the idea of under what circumstances we might meet, and in my column describing my interview with Graham, I wrote: "Sure—next time I'm over at Bebe Rebozo's house, playing pinocle with Nixon, the Hunt brothers and Col. Ky, I'll give her my regards."
     That was it. Fired, the very next day. I don't know if she ever read the joke. I doubt it. But no matter; the idea was, if she did see it, and phoned in a rage, they would be able to say that I had already been canned.
     No big loss. The sacking sent me flying toward eventual happiness at the Sun-Times. And I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that story over the past 15 years. I always tell it to friends licking their wounds after being fired: Sometimes a boot in the pants can be invigorating.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 4, 2000

15 comments:

  1. You’ll have to dumb it down for me, what was offensive about the joke?

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  2. It put her in the realm of these shadowy 1960s figures. Colonel Ky was a disreputable South Vietnamese officer. The Hunt brothers had cornered the silver market. Bebe Rebozo was Nixon's bagman.

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    1. I didn't get the offensiveness either, although I was very much around during that time, in Vietnam actually in 1965. But clueless as usual, I thought Col. Ky was an abbreviation for the Kentucky Colonel Sanders and that Hunt and Rebozo were named because they were Nixon's buddies. Ah, time flies and memories fade away.

      john

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  3. It's nice that being fired worked out for you, but your employers could have saved themselves a lot of trouble, and retained a good employee, if they had just removed that line from the column before it ran instead of letting it run and then turning on you.

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    1. The flaw in that logic Bitter Scribe is this: I was the editor.

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    2. Meaning no one read your copy before it was printed?

      I've been in that situation several times in my own career. It never led to my getting fired, but it wasn't a comfortable feeling.

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    3. Yes, the editorial page editor, where the column appeared. My boss only read it in print. A reminder that newspapers were bare-boned operations BEFORE the internet.

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    4. What NS did might have rated a warning, a reprimand, or a suspension. It was hardly a firing offense. Perhaps the employers were already looking for an excuse, valid or otherwise. They believed they'd found one, and in the end, that's all that mattered. Game over. My uncle had a sign in his office: "The boss may not always be right...but he's the boss."

      One of my most memorable bosses was a Captain Queeg, and it was suspected that she, too, was playing with a short deck. It was small comfort to me that hundreds of others also went down when the ship finally sank. In another week or so, it'll be forty years.

      Not long afterward, she died. Brain tumor at 43. Draw your own conclusions. I drew mine when I read her obit in the Sun-Times.

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  4. Good story. Funny, I was wondering about what the real Billy Graham was like when I accidentally came across your article. You answered a lot of questions I've had for the last two decades. Thanks.

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  5. Granted I’m rather obtuse about these sorts of things, but even still, I can’t belive they considered obvious satire a fire-able offense.

    To get more on topic; I’ve seen reports that based on tax filings, his son Franklin draws an $800,000 salary from his charity, is that true?

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    1. They did. I have a photo of Graham and myself -- maybe I'll dig it out. As for your second question, I would guess: at least.

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  6. I understand why they fired you. And also agree that white bread Wheaton was no place for you to spread your journalistic wings. I commented yesterday with a suggestion that you might have gone easy on the Rev Billy in your obit. I reread it in the paper this morning and agree that it was balanced. Not quite 'warts and all,' but appropriately respectful while sufficiently revealing of the man's faults. I continue to be amused at the irony of a politically liberal journalist such as yourself treading somewhat lightly while right wing ideologue George Will plays the iconoclast.

    Tom

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    1. Will was writing a column. An obituary is a unique form. It isn't a place for polemic. Graham's central failing is clear, driven home by the Martin Marty quote. His anti-Semitic cheerleading is also clear. No need to underline it. The readers may draw their own conclusions.

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    2. Thanks for the clarification. You can tell I'm not a journalist.

      Tom

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  7. I watched some TV news about Graham from doctors waiting rooms. The visuals of the evangelist were telling. The bible, always in his hand when he is actually reading from a script on the podium he stands behind. His book is opened to an early chapter, held in his left hand but away from the lectern. I wish the audio was of the speech, not the reporters voice over, then I could tell if he was preaching Exodus or the new testament. The bible raised high while he claims the only salvation is through Jesus Christ, guess that leaves you out, Neil. Of course your tribes' faith that has kept you strong through millennia, yet you have no need to tout its' superiority to the countless other faiths, current or extinct. Evangelism lacks humility which puts to question its' christian nature.

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