By Mike baker
Tribune Washington Bureau
2010-04-29 12:00 AM
The president went to visit the Rev. Billy Graham at his North Carolina home, a mountaintop log cabin, Sunday afternoon before leaving for a memorial service for the coal miners killed in the recent West Virginia mining disaster.
Obama and Graham had never met in person before. The White House says the two have long tried to get together, and when they last spoke on the telephone - when the president called the famed evangelist on his 91st birthday in November - they agreed to do so as soon as possible.
The president left the Grove Park Inn, where he and his family had spent a brief weekend vacation - the president played golf Saturday morning, and he and First Lady Michelle Obama played tennis this morning - at 12:16 p.m. local time and headed for Graham's house on a beautiful day in the high 60s, a blue sky hoisting fluffy white clouds.
"Rev. Graham has obviously been an important spiritual leader for past presidents and for the American people for decades," said Bill Burton, a White House spokesman. "He's a real treasure for our country. The president appreciates the opportunity to visit him at his home... sounds like (Graham's health is) pretty good. Sounds like he's got some of the creaks that come with advancing age but he's still as sharp as he ever was...
"It's a fair guess that they'll pray together," Burton said before the meeting. And pray, they did, Burton said after the meeting, reporting Obama was extraordinarily gratified to have had the chance for their meeting. It lasted about a half-hour.
The visit follows close on the heels of the Army last week rescinding an invitation to Graham's son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, to appear at an upcoming National Day of Prayer at the Pentagon because of comments he has made about Islam.
"True Islam cannot be practiced in this country," Franklin Graham told CNN's Campbell Brown in December. "You can't beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they've committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries."
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he had called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion."
Graham, who said a prayer at the inauguration of President George W. Bush, has said he regrets the Army's decision but stands by his comments.
"I don't like the way they treat women, the way they treat minorities. I just find it horrific. But I love the people of Islam," he said, adding some of his work has been in Muslim nations. For instance, Samaritan's Purse, the international charity he heads, works with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. "It's a part of the world I love very much," Graham said. "And I understand it. But I certainly disagree with their teaching."
The Army, which oversees the National Day of Prayer ceremonies, feared that if Graham spoke at the Pentagon, Islamic militants would publicize his comments, potentially fueling tensions in Muslim nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are deployed.
Concerns about Graham were flagged by the watchdog group Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which also raised objections that the Pentagon prayer ceremony had become a fundamentalist Christian event.
The president left the senior Rev. Graham's cabin at 1:16 p.m. local time Sunday and headed to the airport for a flight to Beckley, W.Va. People were standing along the route of the motorcade and waving.
Asked whether the military's decision to rescind an invitation to Graham's son was coming up in the conversation, Burton suggested that would make the visit awkward.
Mike Baker is an Associated Press writer.