Yep, I thought, it's a cow, all right.
White with black markings, moving her head side to side, it was Bessie the audio-animatronic cow, the most famous, most talked about part of the Billy Graham Library and Museum. She stood in a fenced area behind a couple of bales of hay, part of a reproduction of a barn with cattle stalls and the piped-in sounds of hen cackles and cow moos. A group of several visitors, including myself, stood at the fence, staring at her. OK, there's Bessie, I thought. Now what?
Like nearly everyone who enters the 40,000-square-foot museum through its 40-foot high glass cross, I had escaped the gushy Christian pop being played on outdoor speakers, and immediately headed for the cow. As far as animatronics go, Bessie was first-rate, more realistic than, say, Lincoln in Disney World's Hall of Presidents. She moved realistically, her head shifting smoothly from side to side, then dipping into the hay, ears twitching, tail flipping, eyes batting. The most commonly overheard remark from fellow visitors was, "It looks so real!" The second most overheard remark was a nervous "I thought she was supposed to talk."
But Bessie was on a tight schedule, and gave her spiel in cycles. When she finally started talking, reminiscing about the young "Billy Frank" and how he practiced his sermons on animals and stumps, the couple next to me visibly relaxed. I had read that Bessie had a Southern accent, but this was over the top; kind of like Mammy in Gone With The Wind, complete with cackling laughs and "whoo, chile" corniness.
Museum staff members say Bessie is there to get children interested in the Billy Graham story. Critics say she's a silly distraction that demeans the evangelist's message. I don't know who is right, but it didn't take long to feel it was pretty absurd -- ridiculous, really -- to be hearing about the "Good News" from a robot cow. A real talking cow, now that would have been different (probably a miracle) and I might have come out of the museum a changed man. But in this case, I just moved along as Bessie, her spiel over, began munching hay and humming "Shall We Gather At The River."
The rest of the museum's offerings are a mix of films, multimedia displays, reproductions of episodes in Graham's life, striking hi-tech exhibits, and glass cases filled with memorabilia. Together, they tell the official version of Billy Graham's rise from farmboy to internationally known evangelist, preacher to the oppressed behind the Iron Curtain, and schmoozer of the powerful.
Some museum exhibits are more skillfully produced than others, but overall, they're imaginative, and in a couple of cases -- the large display reproducing the site of Graham's historic 1949 Los Angeles tent revivals and the Berlin Wall checkpoint replica -- pretty impressive. No matter where you are, though, one thing dominates the museum: Graham's preaching voice. He's preaching in L.A., he's preaching at the Berlin Wall, and he's preaching up a storm in the radio station where he taped his "Hour of Decision" show in the 1950s and '60s.
In fact, the strongest impression I carried away from the exhibits was that Billy Graham at his peak was one of the greatest public speakers of our time. His energy, control and exuberance came through loud and clear in video footage of his early "crusades." Striding across the stage, Graham was a dynamo -- vital and forceful, eyes afire, arms moving in dramatic slashes, then spreading wide in open-armed appeals. Join Graham's vitality to his condemnations of "godless communism," and it's no wonder that, in 1949, conservative media baron William Randolph Hearst told his editors to "puff Graham." That order was the critical boost that made Graham a national figure, although the museum doesn't acknowledge Hearst's crucial role in the preacher's career.
At the end of the museum tour, I hesitated before leaving. I felt oddly ill at ease, as if I had missed, or the museum's planners had forgotten, some crucial piece of information. I wandered over to the gift shop, looked at the official Billy Graham swag and tried to figure out what was gnawing at me. Then I came upon a photo of Graham with Richard Nixon and my memory suddenly kicked in. I realized what I'd missed -- a historical context that was, er, faithful to reality.
Throughout the museum, Graham is presented as a peacemaker who healed people's "hungry hearts" and, as the video montages imply, supported the progressive movements of our era. It's hard to deny Graham's soothing effect on many people's lives, and only the cold-hearted would begrudge that. But to infer that he was a champion of progressive causes is way off base, if not plain crazy. The documented evidence of Graham's prime years, not to mention my re-awakened memories, show something else entirely -- a genteel conservative who consistently resisted many of the progressive upheavals of the times. It's true that Graham took flack from fundamentalists who were mad that he reached out to Catholics and liberal Protestants, and that he didn't hurl hellfire and brimstone at his listeners. But was he, overall, a voice for progress? No way.