President Obama Set To Meet With Billy Graham Sunday (UPDATED)

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Michael Duffy and I file this report:

WASHINGTON–Famed evangelist Billy Graham has met and known 11 US Presidents.

Today he will meet his 12th.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to pay a call on the 91 year old preacher today as part of a brief vacation the President is taking with his family in the hills of western North Carolina. “They have long tried to get together,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton. “When they last spoke on the phone, when the President called Rev. Graham on his 91st birthday last November, they agreed to do so as soon as possible.” Obama will be the first president to meet with Graham at his home.

The meeting comes just days after the U.S. Army canceled a May 6 Pentagon appearance by Graham’s son, Franklin, who in 2001 described Islam as evil.  That move provoked criticism from Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

The elder Graham, an avid political observer for decades, has never met Obama. But he had been scheduled to meet the man who would become the 44th president back in October 2008, when Obama was spending a few days in Asheville doing debate prep. A meeting was quietly arranged to take place during a break in Obama’s debate preparations; but then it as just as suddenly canceled by Graham on account of illness. Graham, who lives in a mountaintop log cabin above the tiny village of Montreat, 18 miles east of Asheville, met and prayed with his first president, Harry Truman, in 1950.  That meeting didn’t go well, chiefly because Graham, then 31, spoke to reporters about it afterward.

But Graham learned from the experience and went on to meet and usually pray with every president who followed. Graham helped Dwight Eisenhower find a church when he became president; He was pastorally close to Lyndon Johnson; he became so politically close to Richard Nixon that it jeopardized his ministry; George W. Bush credited Graham with planting a seed that led to his spiritual rebirth at age 40. And in 2007,  three presidents — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walter Bush, gathered in Charlotte to help him open his library and museum.

Though in his tenth decade and suffering from a variety of medical problems, Graham still walks and prays daily. Aides and family members read to him; and he still receives hundreds of letters every day from people around the world. AFter more than a half century of preaching around the globe to millions, Graham hosted his last full-fledged crusade in New York City in 2005; his last interviews took place in 2007. His wife, Ruth, died three years ago.

UPDATE: Obama arrived at Graham’s house around 1 p.m., with Josh Dubois, the head of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The New York Times’ Peter Baker files this pool report on the visit: 

Bill Burton came aboard to informally fill us in: Potus has never met Graham; they have only spoken on the phone. He tried to see the reverend in 2008 when here for debate prep but the timing did not work for Graham at the time. When Potus called Graham last November to wish him a good 91st birthday, they renewed their discussion of a visit so when the North Carolina trip came up, the White House arranged a stop.

“Reverend Graham has obviously been an important spiritual leader for past presidents and for the American people for decades,” Burton said. “He’s a real treasure for our country. The president apprecites the opportunity to visit him at his home.”

Burton added: “It’s a fair guess that they’ll pray together.” Asked whether the military’s decision to rescind an invitation to Graham’s son, Franklin, would make the visit awkward, Burton said: “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

On Graham’s health, he said: “Sounds like he’s pretty good. Sounds like he’s got some of the creaks that come with advancing age bu the’s still as sharp as he ever was.”

A later pool report, by the Washington Post’s Michael Shear added this:

The following readout from Burton. The President had a private prayer and conversation with Rev. Graham. He is extraordinarily gratified that he took the time to meet with him. Franklin Graham was also in attendence.