Rehab IV: Feature writing on deadline

With little time to think, planning became the key virtue

Background: So, I go to work for my paper’s “Calendar” section, which covers entertainment–but, a month after I get there, they redesign it so that it can also run any type of feature story.

Rehab IV: Feature writing on deadline

Rehab IV: Feature writing on deadline

The assignment: So, I walk into the office around 10 on a Thursday morning and see there is an e-mail from the managing editor suggesting I be sent to Dallas to cover Billy Graham’s “last” crusade. I use quotes because Graham’s “last” crusade has been forecast for years. But our ME noticed that in today’s paper, we’d run a five-inch wire story about a four-night crusade that was to begin tonight–Thursday–and he wanted somebody to chronicle it.

Which meant I had to fly to Dallas immediately and familiarize myself with Billy Graham enough on Friday so that I could go to the Friday night crusade so that I could write the story on Saturday (so that I could get home in time to see the first game of the World Series Saturday night and also) so the story could meet an early Sunday deadline and run in Monday’s Calendar section.

I had a small advantage here because I had been the paper’s religion editor, among other duties, for the previous two years before moving back to reporting on Labor Day. But I’d never edited a story about Graham, and, in my personal musings, had lumped him in with all the other televangelists. I had a lot of reading to do. I found some stuff on the Web and our library found me some helpful stories from the Dallas Morning News, which was covering the hell out of the crusade in the days before it started.

The planning: Sitting in an LAX bar Thursday afternoon I scribbled some “pretend” leads…like, oh, maybe this was what it would have been like if Reagan’s followers could watch him hit one more homer before he got Alzheimer’s. I was bored, but I kept telling myself that even stupid ideas were good, because this was one of those stories where you want to plan enough time to expose yourself to as many impulses and people as possible, operating with the confidence that you will find a theme. You also want to allow yourself time for that to happen.

I read all the clips on the plane and found some Graham followers in Dallas who I could call. I loved a clip about a guy who’d gone to Graham’s last crusade in Dallas in 1971 and was actively involved in this one. I loved that there was an actual blessing of the seats. I loved, too, that Graham, unlike so many televangelists, was relatively clean–had actually promised in 1948 to reveal all his finances. I loved how long he had been in the nation’s consciousness–he’d done a months-long crusade in NYC nearly a half-century ago. The more I read, the more it became clear that there was an essential poignancy about a legendary figure and his Texas flock that whether they’d admit it or not) that was coming to say goodbye.

The voices: From about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday I re-read clips, typed up background grafs and made phone calls to people I’d read about. Around 5 I headed for Texas Stadium. It was raining hard, cutting attendance down, but there were still 40,000 or so people streaming in. I I picked off folks for comments about why Graham mattered to them, then grabbed a seat, watched the service, and took notes. I tried to find commonalities between the clips I had read (particularly a couple of excellent commentaries in Slate and Time magazine), the interviews I had done, and what I was seeing now as the old man walked slowly to his place on the stage. It was not dramatic. It was kind of flat–until he asked those who wished to declare Christ their savior to come down from their seats. The harshness of the rain made this silly, but they came anyway, until there was this sea of people in rain gear on the football field.

The noodling: As I watched this I doodled with leads. I tried one involving the guy who had seen the original ’71 Texas crusade. It was flat. I tried the one based on what-if-Reagan….It was stupid. It occurred tome I was going to wake up the next day and have a self-imposed noon deadline with no clear lead. I panicked a little, realized it didn’t do any good, watched the rest of the service, went back to my hotel and went to sleep.

The lead: The next morning, in front of my laptop, I tried to ask myself a question: What was the most vivid moment I’d seen. And then it hit me–it was the rain. It was the way the old man had spoken through a torrent. The rain was not an organizing principal, but it gave me a shove, and it allowed me to realize that Graham was simply doing what he’d done for so many decades, and would some day soon no longer do–and that, I told myself, was a pretty good distillation about what the story was about. Because I had planned well, knew my components and had established a sense of direction, I was able to finish the story in about three hours. Here’s what ran (after light editing), with a few observations in caps:

BILLY GRAHAM: THE MISSION NEVER ENDS
By Bob Baker
October 21, 2002

IRVING, Texas — The rainstorm poured through the half-open roof of Texas Stadium and hit the blue tarp so hard it almost drowned out the old man’s words, and yet the faithful, 34,000 of them, were rapt. The tall white-haired old man was saying the same thing he said when he started these rallies back in ’47. The same thing he said in ’49 when a three-week Los Angeles crusade exploded into eight weeks, catching the nation’s ear for the first time. The same thing he said in ’57 when he held them spellbound in Madison Square Garden for 16 weeks, a phenomenon so stunning it was covered by national television. The same thing he’d said to more than 200 million people in more than 180 countries.

THE BEGINNING OF THE NEXT GRAF WAS BASED ON AN OBSERVATION THAT ALMOST EVERY PERSON I TALKED TO:

He makes it so simple, the faithful reflected gratefully, as the Rev. Billy Graham held his 412th — and possibly last — crusade. He boils it down: God loves you. Accept Christ as your savior and your sins will be forgiven. You will be with God for eternity. No threats. No evil enemy. Almost no reference to hell. Simply surrender to God.

NOW THE GRAF ABOUT THE FRAILTY

He will be 84 in a couple weeks. He hobbles to and from the lectern with the assistance of his son, the Rev. William Franklin Graham Jr., who has already replaced him as chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and underwent a series of brain operations to drain fluid two years ago. That began the last-crusade speculation, but he kept going — to Jacksonville, Louisville, Fresno, Cincinnati and, last week, North Texas, which had not seen him since 1971 and did not expect to see him again. No further crusades are scheduled.

HERE I GOT LUCKY BECAUSE ON THE NIGHT I SAW HIM HE ACTUALLY CONFRONTED THE SUBJECT, MAKING A QUOTE THIS HIGH IRRESISTIBLE

“I know that death is going to come to me in the near future,” Graham said late in his half-hour address Friday night, the second of four scheduled evenings. “But, by God, because of what Jesus did on the cross I’m ready — and happy to go.”

I WANTED TO KEEP HAMMERING ON THE “ACTION” OF FRIDAY–THE QUESTION OF WHO WOULD COME FORTH

He said it the way he says most things, in a calm, dignified North Carolina accent, with none of the florid exclamations associated with so many evangelists, yet with the confidence of someone who was an all-star Fuller Brush salesman before he was a preacher. He was focusing, as he usually does, on those in the audience who might be “good” people, who might go to church but who had not formally accepted Christ. He wanted them to leave their seats and walk down toward the field, where they would be met by one of thousands of counselors trained for this moment. “God makes you innocent,” he encouraged them. “He places you in his sights as though you’d never committed a sin.”

THAT REAGAN IMPULSE OF MINE WAS A NON-STARTER AS A LEAD, BUT I THOUGHT IT WORKED HERE TO GIVE THE STORY SOME EMOTIONAL TRUTH. PLUS, TWO OF THE INTERVIEWS I HAD DONE FLOWED NICELY FROM IT. I THOUGHT THOSE COMMENTS MADE A NICE FIVE-GRAF SECTION; IT WAS WHY I CAST AS WIDE A PHONE INTERVIEW NET AS I COULD ON FRIDAY DURING THE HOURS BEFORE I HAD TO GO TO THE GRAHAM APPEARANCE. I WAS UNLIKELY TO GET QUOTES OF THIS DEPTH BY PICKING OFF INDIVIDUALS AT RANDOM INSIDE TEXAS STADIUM.

His frailty made this moment bittersweet — sad, yet a chance to appreciate a lifetime. Imagine if there had been a way for conservatives to wave goodbye to Ronald Reagan before his gifts were stolen by age, to watch him deliver one last muscular bromide. Imagine a stadium basking in a message and a voice that had brought such comfort for so long. This was Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, savoring a man who has been nicknamed everything from the Pope of Protestants to the Elvis of ecumenical evangelism.

“There’s been a lot of talk among the clergy that this is the end of an era, that this is like seeing Cal Ripkin break the iron-man record [for consecutive games played] or Barry Bonds break the home-run record,” said the Rev. Don Holliday, a pastor at Scofield Memorial Church in Dallas, one of about 50 area pastors who earlier in the week prayed over every seat in the stadium.

“It makes people want to turn out for this. It’s a sense they are watching history in the making.”

Drew Dickens, a volunteer in charge of training and coordinating the counselors for the Dallas crusade, could not help but think of the unbroken circle. Dickens had been in this stadium as a seventh-grader in 1971 only because it was new and he wanted to see it, especially the funny hole in the roof that kept the field open while protecting the spectators. Yet he was so moved by Graham that he joined the hundreds who walked down from their seats to make a commitment to Christ. Today he runs his own ministry.

“It’s poignant for me now because I’m responsible for 9,000 counselors to do what somebody did for me 31 years ago,” he said. “And my sons are now about the same age as I was, and while they’ve already chosen to surrender their lives to Christ, it’s a lot of fun watching it through their eyes.”

HERE, HAVING ESTABLISHED WHY GRAHAM MATTERS, WE BEGIN A FIVE-GRAF BIO SECTION, CULLED LARGELY FROM CLIPS:

Billy Graham, the son of a dairy farmer outside of Charlotte, N.C., was 16 when he committed to Christ while watching a fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher. Ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1940, he took over a radio show and caught fire, then quit a pastorship for full-time evangelism around the country. Radio made him bigger still during a series of tent rallies in Los Angeles in ’49. Others had used advertising, publicity campaigns, staffs of specialists and singers to refine revivalism, but Graham is credited with perfecting it. The accessibility of his message has led to mutually beneficial relationships with every U.S. president since Truman.

Even in his twilight, Graham spoke powerfully at the National Cathedral in Washington on a national day of prayer after the Sept. 11 attacks. Weeks later a Gallup poll found that he was America’s fifth-most-admired man, behind President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Pope John Paul II. “He is an icon essential to a country in which, for two centuries now, religion has been not the opiate but the poetry of the people,” wrote Yale University professor Harold Bloom, author of “The American Religion.”

Graham’s power, Dickens suggested, lies in two things. First, the simplicity of his message: “As Christians, we have made this overly complex. Christ’s message was simple: of love, of starting over.” And second, the mechanics of the Graham crusade, in which each person who steps forward is greeted by a counselor who keeps tabs on him or her in the weeks ahead. “It’s not mass evangelism. It’s actually personal evangelism on a mass scale.”

After decades of televangelists caught up in hypocrisy or political or social campaigns and the more recent Roman Catholic Church abuse scandal, Graham fulfills a nostalgic fondness for purity that transcends his Southern Baptist roots. He split with much of the religious right, for example, by denouncing the violent tactics of faith-based anti-abortion groups. (One rare moment of embarrassment occurred earlier this year when he was forced to apologize for saying, in a newly released taped conversation with President Nixon, that the Jewish “stranglehold” on the news media was ruining the country. Graham asked Jews to reflect on a lifetime of actions “that contradict my words in the Oval Office that day.”)

His Minneapolis-based organization has kept its financial records open to the public for the last half-century. Organizers of the North Texas events made a point of saying Graham received none of the funds raised from them. Offerings were requested in a low-key manner to defray the $3-million cost, and a big-screen video sought donations of cars, bicycles and bus passes to aid local residents with transportation problems.

I LIKED THE WAY THE WIFE FINISHED HER HUSBAND’S SENTENCE, SO THEY FLOWED FROM THE BIO SECTION.

“His message is so sincere,” said Skip Carwell of Richardson, a Dallas suburb, who had seen Graham here in 1971. “I think his presentation is honest. It’s from the heart. It’s — ”

” — God-led,” continued his wife, Francene Carwell. “With his whole ministry, he’s been very honest about what his ministry does. He doesn’t keep secrets.”

WATCHING THE SOPHISTICATION OF THE CHRISTIAN MUSIC BEFORE THE SERVICE, I WAS STRUCK BY HOW MUCH HAD CHANGED IN THE CRUSADE.

Much about this Billy Graham crusade was different from that in ’71. For one thing, the word “crusade” has been replaced by “mission” in advertising after Sept. 11, out of sensitivity to Muslims (given that the Crusades of the Middle Ages were military campaigns to seize Jerusalem and a large swath of the Middle East from Muslims). The gospel music had a glossy, sophisticated pop feel. (Singer Jaci Velasquez sang of feeling God’s power “when I’m on my knees” and did a thundering number in Spanish; country star Randy Travis sang of feeling “like a newborn baby in the arms of the Lord” at baptism.) The turnout — 153,000 for the first three evenings — was less than the 75,000-a-night prediction organizers had made. The preacher who used to speak for hours at a time and plant himself in the heart of a city for months was rationing his energy, standing at the lectern with a chair behind him for support, gesturing only occasionally and with only one hand.

I REALIZED THAT OBSERVATION WOULD LEAD ME TO A PARALLEL TRUTH–ABOUT WHAT WAS CONSTANT. THAT OBSERVATION WOULD ALLOW ME TO TRANSITION TO THE STORY’S END, THE IMPLICIT DRAMA OF THE FAITHFUL COMING FORTH. I’D STARTED THE STORY WITH THE OLD MAN SPEAKING IN THE RAIN; IT WOULD BE EFFECTIVE TO SIMPLY END THE STORY THAT WAY, TOO. I WAS EARNESTLY STRUCK BY THE WAY THE FLATNESS OF HIS REMARKS GREW DRAMATIC. I WANTED TO MAKE THE READER FEEL WHAT I HAD FELT.

What had not changed was the way Graham gracefully led his flock to the evening’s lone moment of drama, when he challenged them to make a profound choice. He was doing nothing more than telling homespun stories and quoting the Bible about sin, hardly trying to craft applause lines, when suddenly he wondered about all the images of the cross people use and wear without thinking about what they mean. Quickly he connected the dots (” … the cross, first of all, means that God sees the depth of our sins…. The Bible says you have to repent sin and seek Jesus in your heart… “). He asked the audience if they’d ever broken a commandment.

And then he asked those sinners who had yet to accept Christ as their savior to leave their seats, to join him in surrender. “You’re standing at the crossroads tonight, many of you…. The choice you make tonight will affect your whole life.”

Ordinarily he would have asked them to approach the huge stage constructed at one end of the football field, but because of the rain he told them to simply make their way to a covered seating area. He marveled at the elements, “this dramatic and wonderful evening.” The organist began to play and Graham bowed his head, and about a thousand people trickled out of the stands … into the hard rain, to the front of the stage, creating a solid sea of multicolored umbrellas that covered more than half the field.

Now his voice seemed to increase in passion. He prayed with them — just three sentences about confessing their sins and accepting Jesus as their savior. The hardest rain of the day seemed to hit and, after standing silent at the microphone for a moment, Graham was led away by his son.

I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT WHETHER THE LAST GRAF WAS NECESSARY. I WAS TEMPTED TO USE A MORE ABRUPT APPROACH, BUT I LIKED THE QUOTE BECAUSE IT RESONATED WITH ANOTHER KEY POINT OF THE STORY: THIS MAY BE THE LAST TIME–OR, MAYBE NOT.

“You just don’t know what God has in store for him,” said Candice Mallard, who was spending part of the day at a book counter where many of Graham’s 18 best-sellers were sold and the rest of the night as a spiritual counselor. “You look at him: He has Parkinson’s, he’s pretty frail, but when he stands up to speak it’s like God puts his hand on him and he doesn’t look like a frail 83-year-old man with Parkinson’s.”