MIAMI -- Evangelist Billy Graham, the friend of presidents, says he is as close to President Reagan as he has been to any chief executive but they are deliberately less public about it.
Graham, in a 90-minute interview, offered intimate glimpses of several chief executives -- his soul-searching talks with Lyndon Johnson, how Richard Nixon purposely shut him out of the White House in the last stages of Watergate to protect Graham's ministry, and his long-term friendship with Ronald Reagan.
Graham was asked whether he was not closer to Johnson than any other president.
'Well, either him or Reagan,' Graham replied with a laugh. 'Reagan has been a friend for so many years. It's not visible and I don't want it to be visible.'
They met through Nancy Reagan's mother a year after she and Reagan were married.
'We've been very, very close family friends ever since. We've been entertained a number of times in their home in California, a number of times while he was governor, and I have been with him a number of times since he's been president, and we talk together on the phone quite often.'
'Nobody knows we've been to the White House as guests of Reagan. We wanted to play down that part,' he said.
'It was not an understanding, but I think the president recognizes that. They were playing me up as the friend of presidents, guest at the White House and all that and that was starting to hurt my ministry.'
Graham said he spent 26 nights at the White House when Lyndon Johnson was president and they often had spiritual talks.
'He loved to talk religion. He liked to talk about being saved. He knew all the language,' Graham said.
'One morning at Camp David, Ruth and I were staying at one of the cottages. We walked over, and he had (Johnson aide) Jack Valenti reading an evangelistic sermon. Here was the Cabinet standing around -- they all had to listen to this evangelistic sermon his great-grandfaher Baines had preached. He had been reading it during the night.'
It was Nixon, however, who Graham said sought to protect him from the ugly publicity surrounding the Watergate scandal.
'Nixon called them (his aides) in his last year and said, 'I don't want Billy Graham near me. I don't want him tarred with Watergate.'
'Even the last week (Nixon was in office), I tried to get to him to have a prayer with me. I couldn't even get a phone call through to anybody. They wouldn't see me. It was deliberate. He just didn't want me in on it.'
But three months after Nixon resigned, Graham went to see him in San Clemente. They see each other at least two or three times a year and they talk on the phone, as recently as since Graham's trip to Moscow in May.
'We're good friends,' Graham says. But he still shakes his head in sadness when he recalls what he heard on Nixon's White House tapes.
Perhaps Graham's most difficult relationship was with President Jimmy Carter, an irony since both men are devout Southern Baptists.
Graham said they were good friends before Carter became president. Carter had four prayer breakfasts when he was Georgia governor and Graham spoke at two of them. Carter was chairman of a crusade in Americus, Ga., for one week and Graham recalls he gave the invitation every night because he was the only one who would do it on an integrated basis.
'He had a lot of courage,' Graham said.
But Graham told of an incident that may have contributed to their distance. Carter had announced for president in 1976 but had not gone through the primaries. Both men happened to be in Jackson, Miss.
'I was guest of the governor,' Graham recalled. 'He had invited our whole team that day. The governor said, 'Jimmy Carter's down at the statehouse walking around telling everybody he's running for president. He's got a TV interview at 4. Would you like to go down and see him and take him to his TV interview?
'So we went down there. Carter, sure 'nuf, everybody he'd meet, he would say, 'I'm Jimmy Carter. I'm running for president.'
'We talked a little bit. When we got to the car, the governor put me in the back seat with him and Carter up front with the chauffeur. I felt terrible about that. Carter's temper came to the front slightly. It was controlled but I could see it in his eyes.
'He said, 'I know you all think I'm crazy, but I AM going to be president.' I didn't say anything and the governor sort of laughed and didn't say anymore. We knew that something was eating on him. We let him out. The governor didn't get out and open his door or anything. Carter went into the TV station and we went on off.'
Graham went to Carter's inauguration but did not see him. He said Carter was very warm when they met at the National Prayer Breakfast a few weeks later and said he and the first lady wanted the Grahams to come to the White House.
'But we never got a letter of invitation,' Graham said.
Later, 'all of a sudden,' a call came saying Carter wanted the Grahams to come to dinner, just the four.
'We had a wonderful evening,' Graham said. 'Carter said, 'now, I'm sending over to the hotel to get your baggage, we want you to spend the night with us.''