I used to tell my graduate students that doing archival research is just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

I gave up graduate students when I moved from Columbia to Dartmouth more than a decade ago, and it’s a good thing because if I said something like that today, I’d be haled in front of an academic tribunal and charged with impure thoughts, inappropriate use of language and/or unwarranted exercise of personal privilege.

I’d be convicted in a heartbeat, of course, sentenced to append he/him/his to the bottom of my emails and probably given some other, equally senseless penalty – listening to an entire Eminem playlist, perhaps, or watching a golf tournament on television and submitting a 5,000-word essay on how I had grown from the experience and become more sensitive to the needs and concerns of others.

I stand by my assessment of archival research. It’s great fun, a kind of treasure hunt, although the best discoveries are the ones you find along the way.

In the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, for example, I learned how seriously Billy Graham considered the possibility of running as Barry Goldwater’s vice president in 1964.

Remember Cal Thomas, the syndicated newspaper columnist and reliable shill for the Religious Right?

On July 24, 1979, Thomas wrote to Jimmy Carter’s religion liaison, Robert Maddox, at the White House, professing his “great love for and faith in the President” and begging for a job in the Carter administration – the same president and administration he would later lambast in his columns.

I sent Thomas an email asking for an explanation. He replied but refused to comment.

All of this comes to mind because of the confluence of two events.

First is the release of the remarkable documentary Turn Every Page, about Robert Caro, biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb. The documentary demonstrates both the importance and the exhilaration of archival research.

The second is my recent visit to yet another archive, the Billy Graham Archive and Research Center, in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m researching for a biography of the late Mark O. Hatfield, Republican senator from Oregon who served for 30 years, from 1967 to 1997. Senator Hatfield was a Baptist, an evangelical and perhaps the last liberal Republican in America.

Once again, plunging into a new archive did not disappoint. I found plenty of the material I was seeking, including correspondence between Graham and Hatfield. But almost predictably, some of the most satisfying archival adventures are those that trail off into the raspberry bushes.

I came across a gracious letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Graham, for example, following her husband’s assassination. Graham had offered a tribute and the benediction at a fundraising event in North Carolina for the JFK Presidential Library.

“I do want to thank you more than I can ever say, for all you did to make last Sunday – at Chapel Hill – such a memorable occasion,” the president’s widow wrote.

Later in the letter, she added, “I remember how much the President admired you, and your wish to perpetuate his memory comforts me beyond words. I shall never forget that you participated in this event, and always be grateful.”

The letter is all the more remarkable considering Graham’s intrepid attempts to block Kennedy’s election three years earlier.

Another rabbit trail, this one related to the 1960 presidential campaign between Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Ostensibly to avoid being asked his political preferences, Graham arranged to be out of the country from the end of June until early October 1960. He spent much of his time in Switzerland, and some of that time included a conference on evangelism at the Montreux Palace Hotel in August.

This is the gathering that included Harold John Ockenga and Norman Vincent Peale and led in turn to the notorious meeting of Protestant ministers at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington to strategize how to defeat Kennedy in the November election.

I will tell that story in another venue, but I found a letter from Graham to John R. W. Stott, one of the participants in the evangelism conference, utterly fascinating. Stott was rector of All Soul’s Church in London and a leading evangelical theologian.

Referring to his evangelistic efforts in Europe following the Montreux conference, Graham wrote, “We have been averaging over 400 each day at our ministers [sic] meetings, including such men as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and others. I am certain that these men have been shaken to their roots by Carl Henry’s magnificent presentation of the evangelical position.”

Graham was sure that Henry’s arguments heralded a theological sea change.

“It is most significant to me that Brunner, Barth, Bultman [sic], Tilloch [sic] and Niebuhr are all German or German Swiss – and Carl Henry is German,” he wrote. “I am convinced that God is going to use him to plant seeds that may bring about the development of a German evangelistic system of theology that could help influence the church throughout the world.”

I leave it to others to decide whether Carl Henry’s articulation of evangelical theology altered the course of mid-20th-century Protestant theology. As a friend of mine remarked, reading Barth is “on a different planet” from reading Henry.

At the very least, one has to admire Billy Graham’s incurable optimism.

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