Opinion

Billy Graham Was Tarred by His Sycophantic Compliance With Nixon. Will Trump's Jews End Up the Same?

Graham's legacy, tarnished by his eager complicity with a bigoted, criminal president, should be a cautionary tale for AIPAC, which legitimized Trump's candidacy, and for the prominent rabbis who've insinuated themselves with him

Then-candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak during the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C. Monday, March 21, 2016
Bloomberg

By pure coincidence, the funeral services for Rev. Billy Graham took place just two days before the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee began in Washington. There is a lesson in the accidental proximity of these two events, however, about the risks of insinuating oneself with the wrong kind of president.

The largely laudatory obituaries for Rev. Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99, refused to avert their eyes from his most prominent moral and political failure. It concerned his relationship with President Richard Nixon and it represents a cautionary tale to the Donald Trump fan base in AIPAC and the American rabbinate.

As Jeff Greenfield recently recalled in Politico, Graham began sucking up to President Nixon from the first moments he took office. The evangelical minister’s prayer at the inaugural ceremony included lines that anticipate the obsequious praise of today’s fundamentalist Christians for Trump: "We recognize, O Lord, that in Thy sovereignty Thou has permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history."

Evangelist Billy Graham and President Nixon wave to a crowd of 12,500 at ceremonies honoring Graham at Charlotte, N.C. Oct. 16, 1971
/AP

By the time Nixon had to resign in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal five years later, Graham was enduringly tarred with the corruption of the man he had hailed as a God’s earthly instrument. The most condemning details of Graham’s courtship of Nixon did not emerge until 2002, when newly-released White House tapes captured Graham enthusiastically amen-ing an anti-Semitic rant by the president.

Not to be outdone by Nixon’s attacks on Jews in the news media and the pornography industry, Graham added, "The stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain."

And in words very relevant to the upcoming AIPAC conference, Graham went on: "A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.”

Only after those recordings became public did Graham apologize to the Jewish community. Then, in 2011, he told Christianity Today magazine that he regretted having immersed himself in partisan politics.

"I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to," he said. "But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now."

First Lady Melania Trump, US President Donald Trump, and Franklin Graham bow their heads in prayer during a memorial for evangelist Billy Graham in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. February 28, 2018
MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Perhaps those words reconciled Graham with his Maker. Deservedly, they have not altered the judgment of history on him. Whatever good Graham accomplished otherwise, his legacy will always be tarnished by his eager, sycophantic supplication of a bigoted criminal who happened to be president.

At this point in the Trump era, it is clear that the vast majority of evangelical Christians have failed to heed Graham’s example. More than 80 percent voted for Trump and such prominent ministers as Graham’s son Franklin have bestowed prayers and praise on Trump, irrespective of his extensive catalogue of sin. Character, it turns out, actually doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot to the Christian Right.

Which brings us to Trump’s Jews and how they still might benefit from Billy Graham’s flawed example.

AIPAC bears particular responsibility for legitimizing Trump as a plausible candidate for president. Two years ago, the lobby not only gave Trump its pulpit – this after he had already made numerous racist, sexist, and nativist statements – but bathed him in standing ovations for mendaciously attacking President Obama as an existential threat to Israel.

AIPAC’s leaders belatedly apologized, and tried to present Trump’s invitation as one that any competitive presidential candidate would have been given.

U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016.
AFP

Their rationalization has always made me wonder why I can find no evidence that AIPAC offered speaking opportunities to the segregationist George Wallace in 1968 and the anti-Semite Patrick Buchanan in 1992, when those two men were also viable candidates. We may never be able to calculate how many Jewish swing votes in pivotal states in 2016 like Florida, Pennsvylvania, Michigan, and Ohio were encouraged by AIPAC’s indulgence of Trump.

The line-up of speakers for this year’s AIPAC conference tries to maintain the pretense that the lobby is bipartisan. But the effusive response to Trump two years ago betrays the rightward tilt of AIPAC’s rank-and-file.

And since the organization sees its role as supporting Israel’s government, then AIPAC will surely echo Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s one-of-a-kind love affair with Trump. The two embattled monarchs are supposed to meet again Monday in D.C.

Beyond holding institutions like AIPAC responsible for assisting Trump, however, it is appropriate to also single out individuals. These people include several of the most prominent and influential Orthodox rabbis in the nation.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Weisenthal Center, offered prayers for Trump both at the inaugural and the signing ceremony last May for an executive order on "religious freedom" - a euphemism for allowing anti-gay discrimination and reducing legal restrictions on politicking from the pulpit. This is the same Marvin Hier whose Wiesethal Center operates a museum devoted to tolerance, a concept entirely lost on the current president.

Then there is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a genius of media exposure, who has defended the former presidential aide Steve Bannon against allegations of anti-Semitism and took to the website of the alt-right’s house organ Breitbart.com to extol Trump.  

Most disturbing and disheartening of all is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The former chief rabbi of Great Britain, he is highly esteemed by American Jews for his erudition and eloquence. Rabbi Sacks assisted Vice President Mike Pence in drafting his speech to the Israeli Knesset; in fact, Sacks probably should have complained about plagiarism, considering how closely passages in Pence’s speech echoed the rabbi’s writings and videos. 

Former ambassador Michael Oren used to decry then-President Obama’s testy relations with Netanyahu by invoking the phrase and image of "no daylight." That is, no daylight between Washington and Jerusalem. Under the Trump-Pence administration, there is no daylight indeed.

But the problem with no daylight is that it works in both directions.

US President Donald Trump celebrates after his speech during the Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 20, 2017
POOL/ REUTERS

The no-daylight of Trump’s American Jewish supporters is the president’s tacit support for the settlement movement, public humiliation of the Palestinian government, bellicose rhetoric toward Iran, and impending move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – the latter a major diplomatic concession made without asking anything from Netanyahu in return.

"No daylight," though, also binds Trump’s Jews to everything the president says, does, and is: the well-documented catalogue of bigotries, the flagrant immorality, the blasé attitude to Russian attacks on our democratic system, the coddling words about white supremacists in Charlottesville, and all the way up to betraying his promised solution for the Dreamers and proposing to arm teachers because that’s what the N.R.A. wants. Let it also be noted that the number of anti-Semitic incidents has spiked ever since the Trump candidacy.

What decency requires is more daylight. Some of the Jewish journalists and intellectuals in the #NeverTrump movement – Bret Stephens of The New York Times, David Frum of the Atlantic, John Podhoretz of Commentary, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post  – have not compromised their conservatism or Zionism at all while relentlessly criticizing Trump.

The rabbi who oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism and counted her and Jared Kushner as congregants, Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, initially agreed to deliver the opening prayer the 2016 Republican convention. Under steady criticism from fellow Jews, he backed down. And after Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville rally, Rabbi Lookstein issued an unstinting denunciation.   

Unlike Billy Graham, it didn’t take him 40 years and the release of secret recordings to get right with God, and with the verdict of history. The clock is ticking for the rest of Trump’s compliant Jews.

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books and a professor at Columbia University. Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman