Almost every member of the Senate put aside partisan politics Thursday for a rare moment of unanimity in honoring the Rev. Billy Graham, a man they called the greatest evangelist of our time.
Graham, who has spoken to more live audiences than anyone in the world, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the United States’ highest civilian honor. On Thursday, much of official Washington - including President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore - joined in paying tribute to the preacher and friend of the powerful, who is in declining health.
Nearing his 78th birthday, Graham is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. And his wife of 53 years, Ruth, who shares the medal with him, is recovering from spinal meningitis.
“I want to thank you all,” said Graham. “Ruth and I are overwhelmed by this honor, which we don’t deserve. We give all the glory and honor to God.”
It was Graham’s first public appearance since last November when he fell in a shower in a New York hotel room and broke several ribs. Age and illness have taken away the strong pace of his stride. Graham was pale, his back was bowed and his stirring voice sounds strained. Mrs. Graham appeared even weaker, and was unable to stand for the presentation of the gold medal.
“I love the man dearly, and I think he has come to a time in his life where he needs to put down the mantle God has handed him,” said Kenneth Chafin, a retired professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., who worked more than 20 years with Graham’s ministry.
Still, aides to the preacher say Graham is feeling good and that he is preparing to lead crusades in Charlotte, N.C., and Minneapolis later this year.