This article first appeared in the July 25, 1969 issue of Commonweal
The ads on the side of the bus told it all. One proclaimed that Billy Graham would be preaching at the Garden. It was done in blue and gold lettering designed to get the message across with a simple dignity. It did not assault the reader, it merely informed him. The other offered Bain de Soleil as the answer to all your suntan problems. It also was designed to get the message across. She was slim and tan and nearly naked and triggered a variety of indecent thoughts. As they rode together up and down the streets of New York competing for people's attention, you didn't have to ask which was winning.
If it may be said that Billy Graham did not succeed in Gotham City, it was not for want of trying or for want of skill. His Crusade Team exhibited the technical and managerial proficiency worthy of any first rate, multi-million dollar corporation. Their logistical ability extended from individual advisors of similar age and sex for the newly converted, to a soft drink lounge and press kits for the media. It was a smooth and flowing operation run by well dressed men with moderated accents. Understanding that the average reporter was secretly searching for the staff Elmer Gantry, complete with whip and black morning coat, the Crusade Team was a study in disarming friendliness. They were in New York to save souls in large numbers and planned to use the most efficient, effective method to bring the Word of God to a city of eight million. As one flyer announced, "Billy Graham is able to preach to more people on one telecast than the Apostle Paul reached in his lifetime."
The main arena of Madison Square Garden seems to dramatize whatever cause is currently paying the rent, from Gene McCarthy's friends to George Wallace's minions. Standing outside, you can see through its grey glass shell to the banks of esacalators which circle the building. Full of the faithful ascending to the upper tiers, it presents a practical picture of what Judgment Day may be like—one more line. With the platform placed at the west end rather than center, Graham was able to look out at nearly 20,000 people at once. Behind him sat a choir, 2,000 strong and clad in white. From the ceiling some 500 feet above, a battery of television and spot lights illuminated the stage in a bath of electrical splendor. It was impressive, professional. If there were an Elmer Gantry in the house it was clear he was more likely to be in the audience than on the team.
While the physical layout was uplifting, the speakers on the platform somehow never quite managed to match their surroundings. One problem was language. In 1957, when the Graham Crusade was last in New York, we were still more or less one people. We all spoke the same language, and if Kerouac and others were using funny words their readers were few and their influence fractional. By 1969 we were clearly divided, Nixon notwithstanding, the older from the younger, the black from the white, the cosmopolitan from the hinterlander. Each group had different problems, different fears, different devils and different words to communicate all three. An early tipoff of Graham's failure to understand the cracks in America was the fact that a program taped in New York was relayed simultaneously to Boston, Cleveland and Greenville, North Carolina.