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.
Graham, at the height of America's culture war turmoil, was seen less as an agent of change than as a sanctioning voice for Nixon's "Silent Majority," those Americans who were nervous, or angry, about changes sweeping the country -- young war protesters, sex education in schools, the speed of forced racial integration, the Supreme Court's school prayer ruling.
Graham often spoke of how "We ruled prayer out of the schools and put sex in." He lambasted the Court's Miranda decision, which mandated that arresting officers read suspects their rights. And always, throughout his career, there were the Presidents -- photo after photo of Graham praying in the Oval Office and offering implied support for whatever war the current President was engaged in. It was a tendency -- his intoxication with nearness to power -- that his wife, the late Ruth Graham, repeatedly tried to steer him away from. Unfortunately, her counsel on that issue didn't take hold.
I was so lost in thought, I didn't notice the Billy Graham insulated drink tumbler someone had dropped in the gift shop. I slipped on it, hit my head on a bookcase, and fell to the floor. I came around a second later and got up on my own, and that was when things took an unexpected turn.
I heard a distinct "Pssst." I turned toward the sound, and a man in coveralls with "Billy Graham Library" embroidered on the chest pocket asked me in a low voice, "Are you a reporter?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Did I hear you saying something about 'something missing'?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact."
"Well then, how would you like to see the museum's hidden exhibits?"
"Come here, follow me."
The man guided me out of the gift shop and said, "Just keep walking. I'm Paul Jones [not his real name] -- I helped design and put together some of the exhibits here. At least I did until Franklin Graham didn't like some of the displays I oversaw, so he fired me and moved those exhibits down to the basement. You wanna see them?"
How could I refuse? I followed Paul around a couple of corners and to a nondescript, gray door. He unlocked it, led me down to the museum's basement, flipped on the lights, and walked over to one of several exhibits that were covered by tarps.
"Now, this is an exhibit I put together, called 'Integration Indecision,'" said Paul, pulling off a tarp. In front of us was a young-looking, audio-animatronic Billy Graham standing before a photographic mural showing highlights from the civil rights movement: Montgomery, Freedom Rides, Birmingham, the March on Washington. Over and over, the robot Billy turned his head to the left and said, "Help 'em rise up!" Then he slowly turned his head to the right and mumbled, "Hey, not so fast."
I looked from the Billy animatron to Paul and said, "I don't get it."
"Look, Billy couldn't seem to make up his mind about equality for blacks. I guess you've heard about his refusal to preach to segregated audiences, even before the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools."
"Sure, and I think that's great."
"It was, but at the same time, Billy was against mandatory integration of public facilities, even during the lead-up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act."
"You're kidding. Didn't he introduce Martin Luther King to his audiences in those days?"
"He did it once, in New York City in 1957, and that was it -- and he sure as hell never did it in the South. Billy never joined civil rights marches, unlike the preachers, rabbis, priests and nuns who put their bodies on the line back then for others' freedom. And here's another thing. After King's 'I Have A Dream' speech? Billy said that the only time white children and black children in Alabama would walk hand in hand would be 'when Christ comes again.'"
"I wish I was," Paul said. "Come over here and look at this."
We walked over to the next rejected exhibit.
"This one's called 'Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition.' Have a look."
A large photo of Graham shaking hands with some Asian men stood to one side, opposite a blank TV screen, while between them hung a poster of Graham in the Oval Office with the first President Bush.
"Those guys," said Paul, pointing to the Asian men in the photo with Graham, "were missionaries Billy met in Bangkok in 1969. They wanted Nixon to bomb North Vietnam's dike system, so Billy sent Nixon a secret letter recommending just that, saying it 'could overnight destroy the economy of North Vietnam.' Trouble was, Nixon had already rejected the idea because it would kill around a million people."
"So, in other words, Graham urged the President to adopt a policy Nixon had already rejected because it was too brutal."
"Exactly. But that's just the start," he said as he walked to the TV screen.
"This is footage of a 1965 revival in the Houston Astrodome -- President Johnson was there. Billy came down hard on Vietnam War protesters." Paul pushed a button, and there was Graham, looking disgusted and chiding demonstrators, saying, "It seems the only way to gain attention today is to organize a march and protest something."
"Wow, that takes me back."
"Look at this next exhibit. I thought for sure this one would be included upstairs, since it's about a famous Charlotte event."
"You mean the Billy Graham Day mess in 1971?"
"The one and only."
One look at the exhibit, and I could see why it had been sent to the basement. It was mostly a collection of large photographs of events from that day, October 15, 1971, at the Charlotte Coliseum (now Cricket Arena): the packed house; Graham alongside Strom Thurmond and his "special guest," President Nixon; Secret Service members manhandling protesters and tearing up their tickets to the supposedly open, public event. A small glass case contained a memo from Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman stating that the protesters would help mobilize support for the President in the South; and replicas of the cross-shaped sandwiches served at a reception that day, hosted by the man who had thought up Billy Graham Day, WBT media mogul and Chamber honcho Charles Crutchfield.
In the middle of the exhibit was a life-sized polymer statue of Nixon, arms raised in two V-signs. A 10-inch replica of Billy Graham, holding a crucifix made of folded dollar bills, hung out of Nixon's coat pocket.
"Holy shit," I exclaimed, but truth be told, at that point in his career, Graham was in Nixon's pocket. He had endorsed Tricky Dick in 1968 and would again in 1972. White House memos make it clear they considered Billy Graham Day a perfect complement to Nixon's "Southern Strategy," which played to the region's racial prejudice and right-wing Christian leanings. The Charlotte Observer summed up the day by editorializing, "And while it was, indeed, Graham's Day, it might as well have been the beginning of President Nixon's campaign."
"If you like that exhibit," said Paul, "you'll probably enjoy this last one. I think this is the one that put Frankie over the edge and got me fired." He pulled off the dusty tarp and flipped a switch.
Animatronic Nixon and Graham sat facing each other in leather chairs before a large background photo of the Oval Office. The two figures began to speak, the men's actual voices coming from the automatons' mouths.
"We edited it a little," explained Paul, "but this is their actual conversation; we got it from a White House tape at the National Archives."
Nixon: "Newsweek is totally -- it's all run by Jews and dominated by them in their editorial pages. The New York Times, The Washington Post, totally Jewish, too."
Graham: "This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain."
Nixon: "You believe that?"
Graham: "Yes, sir."
Nixon: "So do I. I can't ever say that, but I believe it."
Graham: "No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something ... a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me ... They don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country."
There was a 30-second pause. And then the taped conversation began again.
"Whew," I gasped. "You really expected the museum to display that?"
"It's Billy's and Nixon's own words, and I thought Frankie wanted the truth."
"Yeah, I've made that kind of mistake before myself, but ..."
Out of the blue, things started getting hazy. I tried to get my bearings, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor of the gift shop.
"Sir, are you all right?" a female voice asked.
I looked up into the face of a young gift shop clerk. "Uhh, I think so," I said.
"Well, that's a relief. You fell and were out for about a minute. Can I help you up?"
"Huh? Uhh, I think I can make it."
"That's great, sir. Now, if I could ask you to leave ... you're scaring away our customers."
"Oh. Sorry." I got up, my head aching, and walked toward the exit. Someone opened the front door for me; I looked, and it was my man Paul, who winked as I passed.
Back outside, I lumbered toward my car with a quote from Billy Graham in my head: "My message is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not a western religion, nor is it a message of one culture or political system ..."
If only, I thought.
Suddenly, my thoughts, the birds, the sound of the wind, the gushy music on the speakers, everything was drowned out by a thumping disco beat. A guy next to me and I both jumped.
What the ...? Oh, OK, it's a ringtone. For Christ's sake, that's "Disco Inferno" -- and it's loud as hell.
I looked around just as a flustered, 60s-ish woman sporting a tidy hairdo and a turquoise pantsuit yanked a pink cellphone out of her Aigner purse. She stared at it for a couple of seconds, then pushed a button. "Disco Inferno" stopped, and the outdoor speakers' syrupy-slick tenor, singing about "Christ, your love for me is so awesome," filled the air again. "Hey, Doris. No, I'm just coming out of the Billy Graham museum," Hairdo Lady said, "Yes, the cow is great. She's so real-lookin', you won't believe it ..."
I got in my car and drove home. Sometimes satire is no match for reality.