Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sermons, Integrity and Richard Nixon

If you google "sermon illustrations" and "love your enemies," you will pretty quickly come across this anecdote:
Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died hundreds of people from across the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, but one – former President Richard Nixon, who had not long previously dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”*

Great story, right?  Turns out it may be almost true.

We weren't sure at first.

We found the story repeated verbatim herehere and here.  The verbatim part makes us suspicious, since preachers are notorious for passing around the same old stories, with little concertn for pesky old factuality.The last source is Maxie Dunnam's Irresistible Invitation, published in 2010; further research finds that Dunnam has been telling this story at least since his 1998 This is Christianity.  So ... did Dunnam clip this little tidbit out of a newsmagazine, or find it somewhere else?  The question is made harder to answer by the fact that  Newsweek's archives are owned by The Daily Beast, but have not been digitized or made available to anybody except Beast employees.

There is an alternate version of the story that is easy to trace.  Remember that Humphrey and Nixon were political rivals, and the 1968 election was one of the closest and hardest fought in history.  After Watergate, Nixon's reputation was at an ebb so low it may be hard for young people to imagine.  He was hated, reviled, shunned by virtually the whole of the Establishment.  And then, in 1977, his old rival developed urinary cancer.

Then-Senator Dave Durenberger tells the rest of the story, in the Congressional Record (2 May 1994):

When my predecessor in this office -- the Honorable Hubert H. Humphrey -- was dying of cancer in Lake Waverly, MN, he called former President Nixon and asked him to attend his -- Humphrey's -- funeral. 
Humphrey knew that the funeral was not going to be long in coming -- and he arranged that Richard Nixon be received at that ceremony with the full honor due to a former President. Young people who watched the TV coverage of President Nixon's death and funeral -- coverage that I understand was generally positive in tone -- might find nothing remarkable in this. But back in 1977, the scars of the Watergate scandal were far from healed. Many of Senator Humphrey's liberal colleagues -- and even a substantial number of moderates and conservatives -- viewed Nixon as deserving a state of permanent disgrace.
Hubert Humphrey demonstrated true nobility of character by making his historic gesture to President Nixon. He realized that whether you share Nixon's views or no,you have to recognize his value to public life. Humphrey had known Nixon for decades -- and knew that ostracizing Nixon would hurt America's future more than it would help.
Today, let us continue in the tradition of my distinguished predecessor. Let us join Hubert Humphrey in recognizing that all public-spirited Americans, whatever their ideology, have a constructive role to play in building our country's future.

Ah.  Now that is a beautiful story, and -- when you subtract the political blather -- a better preaching illustration as well.

Larry King tells a shorter but compatible version in his 2009 memoir, My Remarkable Journey.  In King's version, which he says he heard from Humphrey, it was Nixon who called Humphrey, in the hospital, on Christmas Eve.  (With a rope?)

But in neither Durenberger's version nor King's is there any mention of Jimmy Carter.  For a while, we thought that the homiletic version was a fabrication.  But then we found a 1994 article in The New York Review of Books, which tells the story of how Nixon fought his way back from ignominy.  And lo and behold, it cites Newsweek's 19 May 1986 issue, on the cover of which a victorious Nixon appeared, under the proud headline "He's Back!"  The Newsweek story begins:

Suddenly he [Nixon] was in the room, and the conversation died. As Howard Baker tells it, Richard Nixon “looked like he was four feet tall, all shrunk up in himself and gray as a ghost.” It was January 1978, in Baker’s Senate office, where the notables were mustering for Hubert Humphrey’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. “Nobody would get near him. Nobody would talk to him. The hush lasted until President Jimmy Carter walked over, shook Nixon’s hand and welcomed him.
If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, that was it.

This version was shortened for use in a 1999 sermon by Arthur Ferry.  Ferry glosses a little, saying that Carter welcomed Nixon "back to Washington."  Ferry also adds the words "humanity and compassion," attributing them -- wrongly -- to Newsweek.  The supposed quotation, "Welcome home, Mr. President," occurs in neither Newsweek nor Ferry. 

The version published by Maxie Dunnam and often copied by other preachers is less faithful to Newsweek than the one in Ferry's sermon.  Dunnam turns "humanity" to "love," and adds the "Welcome home, Mr. President." We thought at first that Dunnam had copied from Ferry, but perhaps he has simply strayed further from a common source.  Still, if Newsweek is to be trusted, the Dunnam/Ferry version is largely accurate, apart from some dialogue and editorial moralizing.  The dialogue seems likely to be Dunnam's creation.

We prefer Durenberger's version, with its emphasis upon Humphrey's kindness rather than Carter's. In any case, the earliest telling -- Newsweek's -- comes almost a decade after the fact, and should be treated with some caution.

We shouldn't care about this.  As readers now know, we at the Egg have no more integrity than Nixon himself.  But still, we do think it is better for everyone, and especially for the credibility of the Gospel, when the stories in sermons are demonstrably true.


RAR said...

Nice post. BTW, it's David (not Dan) Durenberger.

RAR said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Father Anonymous said...

Oops. Thanks -- fixed it.