CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Make that four presidents who have traveled to the Billy Graham Library. On Monday, President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, met with the evangelist and his son, Franklin Graham, before signing copies of their books for a waiting crowd.
Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, joined former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to attend the 2007 library dedication.
On Saturday, hundreds stood in a wet, nasty chill to reserve copies of "Decision Points," Bush's best-seller, and "Spoken From the Heart," by the former first lady; 1,000 wristbands sold out in a few hours, (a wristband and a receipt for both books were required for a return visit), according to a spokesman. Monday's sunny weather was an improvement, and no one seemed to mind standing again, this time for signatures. Carmen Spainhour's eyes even misted as she thought of what she might say to President Bush. "I think he genuinely loved our country," said Spainhour, a Christian art teacher from Winston-Salem. And Laura, she said, is "the best, a classy lady." She also hoped to see Billy Graham. "My mom and my aunt were saved by listening to his telecasts in the 1960's."
First in line was World War II Navy veteran Herman Patterson of Charlotte. He said he thanked Bush for his service before the president thanked him in turn. He also caught a glimpse of Billy Graham, who left after group pictures. Patterson, now 90 and in a wheelchair, showed off his book and the president's signature.
The former president and his wife, who did not speak with the media, were scheduled to sign books for two hours. They sat side by side at the entrance to Ruth's Attic Bookstore, named for the evangelist's late wife. Before the event, they toured the library and shared lunch (chicken marsala, iced tea and apple pie) and conversation with the Rev. Billy Graham
-- who celebrated his 92nd
birthday last month -- and Franklin Graham and Franklin's wife, Jane.
"All of us make decisions," Franklin Graham told me as well-wishers filed by. "The greatest decision is where the soul is going to spend eternity." In Bush's book, among thoughts on the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush discusses his decision to quit drinking and the journey that led him to his Christian faith, including the influence of the elder Graham. His father was "grateful," Franklin Graham said, to have played a small part in that journey.
He called the former president "a wonderful man," and said the two families discussed Graham's recent humanitarian trip to Haiti with Sarah Palin
. ("I have no idea" is his answer to whether she will run for president.) He said his father also reminisced about summer trips to Kennebunkport, Maine, with the Bush family, longtime friends.
Billy Graham, who lives in Montreat in western North Carolina, made the trip to Charlotte for Monday's event. His "mind is sharper today even than it was five years ago," Franklin Graham said of his father, who uses a wheelchair. "He's got amazing energy."
Franklin Graham offered support for both Bush and President Barack Obama for their decision to "take the battle to the enemy" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama is doing "the best that he can" on the war and the struggling economy. Though Graham said in an August interview that Obama was "born a Muslim," he told me on Monday that "the media are the ones that have doubts" about the president's religion. President Obama has answered the question, Graham said, and he has no reason to doubt his declaration of his Christian faith. "Only God knows the heart of anybody," he said.
Tammy Wiles, who attends church with Spainhour in Winston-Salem, has her own opinions on the matter, however. "I don't believe that he makes choices based on faith," Wiles said of Obama. "I don't believe social programs are the right path." She said that if the government backs away, church programs will be able to provide help to those who need it. President Bush, she said, was guided by his faith. "If God is on your side," Wiles said, "you are victorious." She called Billy Graham "a wonderful Christian saint."
James Chavis, 45, of Raleigh, concentrated on the spiritual more than the political as he read "The Saving Life of Christ" to pass the time in line. Chavis said he admired Bush's decision not to say anything critical of his successor. "That makes him upstanding," he said, "a great gentleman." Though he's already read "Decision Points," he bought two more copies. "It's an eye-opener." Chavis mentioned No Child Left Behind and other initiatives that prove, he said, Bush was more than a "war president."
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