WASHINGTON — The nation’s political leaders bowed their heads for a solemn salute Wednesday to the Rev. Billy Graham in the soaring Capitol Rotunda, paying tribute to a man who ministered to presidents and other Americans of both parties.
“Here lies America’s pastor,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, gesturing to Graham’s casket under the eye of the dome, surrounded by family, friends, lawmakers and a ring of paintings of the nation’s founders. “He ministered to all walks, from some of the greats whose statues line this hall—Eisenhower, King, Ford, and Reagan—to the everyday citizens lining up today to pay their respects.”
President Donald Trump recalled that his father, Fred, took him to see Graham preach at Yankee Stadium.
“And it was very special,” Trump said. He called Graham “an ambassador for Christ who reminded the world of the power of prayer and the gift of God’s grace.”
Graham’s influence stretched far beyond the city where he counseled lawmakers to a global flock over the better part of seven decades. Joining the service Wednesday were Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, some members of Trump’s Cabinet and members of the House and Senate. All stood for the rare embrace by the government of a religious leader.
“The man we recognize today shared the Gospel with more people, face-to-face, than anyone else in history,” said Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
As the leaders stood by the casket, Trump reached out to touch the bare wood and Ryan bowed his head.
Graham died a week earlier at age 99. Some 30 family members accompanied Graham’s casket to Washington, where he befriended presidents of both parties and counseled others over seven decades. Graham’s son, Franklin, tweeted a photo Wednesday of family members loading the casket onto a jet emblazoned with “Samaritan’s Purse,” the name of a Christian relief charity that he chairs.
Graham is lying in honor before a funeral Friday near his home in North Carolina. The Rotunda entrances were draped with black fabric, and Graham’s casket rested on a black-draped catafalque beneath the soaring ceiling and its painting, the “Apotheosis of Washington.”
Though he met every president since Harry Truman and counseled most, Graham grew wary of politics after Watergate. He was closest to Richard Nixon but later said he felt used by him.
Nonetheless, Graham ministered to other presidents until his health began to fail about 10 years ago.
Former President Bill Clinton recalled seeing one of Graham’s crusades as a child, a profound experience that became more amazing over his life. Graham counseled him as Arkansas governor, and later as president in the White House itself.
“In that little room, he was the same person I saw when I was 11 on that football field,” Clinton said Tuesday after viewing the casket at Graham’s home.
Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, visited Graham’s home on Monday.
In Washington, Ryan said there had been no doubt that Graham would receive the honor of a public viewing in the Rotunda. He told reporters that almost immediately upon hearing of Graham’s death he, Trump, McConnell and Rep. Patrick McHenry, who represents the Graham family’s district, agreed it would happen.
Graham shares the honor with 11 presidents and other distinguished Americans, starting with Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky in 1852 and, most recently, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii in 2012, according to the House and the Architect of the Capitol.
Graham is only the fourth private person to lie in honor since 1998. The others are two U.S. Capitol Police officers who died in the line of duty in 1998 and civil rights hero Rosa Parks in 2005.
Trump met Graham at the pastor’s 95th birthday party in 2013, but is closer to Franklin Graham Jr.