Prior to Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party last Thursday night, we in the working press gathered, mob-like, behind a rope, waiting to shout questions at and snap photos of celebrity guests at Asheville’s grand Grove Park Inn.
Think Hollywood’s red carpet. But instead of movie stars, we got Republican politicos, Christian musicians and Sarah Palin.
“Hey, Governor,” I called out as the one-time leader of Alaska and her husband Todd strode into view, “what’s Billy Graham’s legacy?”
As the cameras click-click-clicked, she jumped right in with a 17-second answer.
“Oh, he is one who has been able to message what truth is, with the solutions to our world’s problems, our individual problems, and our nation’s challenges,” she said. “He’s been one to articulate what it is and what it will take to get everybody on the right track.”
Before Palin, we got to throw questions to Ricky Skaggs.
“It’s awesome to be at anyone’s 95th birthday, and especially Dr. Graham’s,” the bluegrass picker-singer said. “I’ve got a lot of heroes. But his picture is the biggest one I have in my studio.”
Christian music star Michael W. Smith, who would sing “Happy Birthday” to Graham at the party, had the most succinct take on the Charlotte-born evangelist as he strolled past the press.
“He’s finished well,” Smith said, echoing that first-century evangelist, Paul.
Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton were invited to Billy’s party, but didn’t show, leaving the best seats in the ballroom – and the most time logged on the red carpet – to Republicans.
Press-shy (at least Thursday) Donald Trump and Glenn Beck stayed in their seats.
But U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., met the press, recalling when he was 22 and caddying for Billy at the 1971 Byron Nelson Golf Classic. “He was playing with Bob Hope and Arnold Palmer, and there were golf balls flying everywhere.”
And GOP Gov. Pat McCrory told us about the time in 1996 when he and Graham came into Panthers Stadium, site of the farmboy-turned-preacher’s last hometown crusade to win souls for Christ.
“There were 75,000 people cheering,” said McCrory, who was then mayor of Charlotte. “And (Graham) turned to me and said, ‘I think they’re confused – this is not about me.’”
Then, before moving along the rope, McCrory added: “Billy Graham was the one guy who knew it wasn’t about him. … And, you know, we all need a little humility in this celebrity world we have today.”
-- Tim Funk