Voices

Truth teller

Ruth Bell Graham didn't need handlers or PR experts

Issue: "The 2007 Books Issue," June 30, 2007

I don't want you to think it was part of a typical morning at work to get a personal phone call from Mrs. Billy Graham. True, she lived just a few minutes down the road and had literally hundreds of friends in our community. But if we had bumped into each other at the grocery store-as had actually happened several years earlier-she wouldn't have known me from Adam.

Now, it turned out, she had read a news feature in WORLD that she didn't think we had gotten quite right. Could I drive out, stop by to see her, and let us talk it over? What she actually asked was whether she could "chew my ear" for a little while.

That was vintage Ruth Bell Graham. She didn't beat around the bush. In this instance, she wanted me to know that our coverage of some aspects of U.S.-Chinese relationships had missed the mark. There were nuances, she said, that we should have picked up on but hadn't. She reminded me that, having been born in China, she had kept her contacts there alive for an entire lifetime. She knew what she was talking about.

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And she did. I didn't end up agreeing with every detail of her interpretation of things. But I did realize that here was one of the world's truly well-informed and intelligent people. She was in that sense a news man's delight. My note-taking lagged far behind her torrent of words-and vigorous ideas.

"So," I countered when she finally paused. "As I see it, Mrs. Graham, there are three possible ways for us at WORLD to respond. One would be to do a follow-up interview with you, giving you a chance to say for our readers what you've just said to me. We'd be happy to do that. Or, if you don't want to be quite that visible, you might recommend someone else who could offer the same point-of-view-but frankly, we'd much rather have you do it. Or finally, maybe you simply want us to keep what you've said in the backs of our minds, and let it provide an additional perspective when we do our next story about China."

"Oh no," she protested ever so amiably. "It's certainly the third option-if you do anything at all. I don't mean at all to tell you how to run your magazine. I simply wanted to help you be as accurate as you can be."

Then the zinger. "Before you leave," she said with quiet but unmistakable awareness of the power at her disposal, "Mr. Graham's in the next room. He really would like to meet you-if you have a few minutes."

I'd been had. With full transparency and straightforward honesty, Ruth Graham had manipulated and maneuvered me right where she wanted me. No handlers; no public-relations experts. She could-and did-do all this very much on her own.

At her funeral last week, Ruth Graham's son Franklin spun a few wonderful tales of his own about his feisty and powerful mother. Chasing a rattlesnake down their driveway with a hotdog fork. Crawling across the rooftop of their house so she could throw cold water through an upstairs window on her indolent and overly sleepy son.

But who should be surprised? For 64 years, Ruth Graham managed this very same thing with one of the world's most influential and admired men. Here she was, a lifelong Presbyterian who had never conceded the fine points of her theology to the world-famous Baptist preacher she lived with. Why should she be daunted by overly confident outsiders or by her own sometimes rowdy children?

Speaking the truth candidly, but speaking it in unmistakable love, was a lifelong trademark of Ruth Bell Graham. I like to think Mrs. Graham inherited that wonderfully biblical trait from her father, L. Nelson Bell-who, incidentally, in 1942 founded the company that now publishes WORLD magazine. I also like to think that those of us who follow her, whether closely or from afar, may have learned to imitate her very notable example.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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