One belonged to the establishment; the other hung out on the fringes. One preached to presidents; the other led a tiny cult. Both left their mark on the 20th century and lived on into the 21st. Rev. Billy Graham died in February at the age of 99, and Charles Manson passed away last November in his 80s. Thus ended the lives of two prominent gurus of the 20th century; both of them had been named by the Smithsonian Magazine as among “the 100 Most Significant Americans of all time.”
“The GREAT Billy Graham is dead,” tweeted President Donald Trump, “There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.” Vice-President Mike Pence also lauded him, as did ex-presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush hailed him as “America’s Pastor.”
Praise for Graham was almost obligatory; most politicians, power figures and pundits did as expected. An exception was Washington Post columnist George F. Will, who wrote an obituary saying Billy Graham was no prophet. “Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times. . . Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.”
So it seems that even inside the establishment, not everyone loved and admired Billy Graham. The famously outspoken President Harry S Truman once said of Graham, “Well, I hadn’t ought to say this, but he’s one of those counterfeits I was telling you about.” Nevertheless, counterfeit or whatever, most politicians and pundits said politically correct things about Graham, worshipfully remembering him with appellations such as “the White House Chaplain” and “God’s ambassador.”
Nobody, on the other hand, felt obliged to eulogize Charles Manson when he passed away last year. An obituary in the New York Times read: “Charles Manson Dies at 83; Wild-Eyed Leader of a Murderous Crew.” Although not exactly a eulogy, that article was published in the New York Times, and it wasn’t just a brief notice either, it was a lengthy 2,200 words long. In addition, there were two more substantially long Manson articles in the same issue. One of them, titled “Unhinged Pop Culture Figure,” recalled that Manson “has loomed large in American culture ever since” his brutal killing spree in the summer of 1969. “It has inspired . . . pop songs, an opera, films, a host of internet fan sites, T-shirts, children’s wear” and a lot more.
Such articles weren’t only to be found in the NY Times. Manson obituaries were in the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New Yorker, the Guardian UK, the Economist, and more, too many to name. Here in the U.S. and abroad, they all had something to say about Charles Manson. Manson did not die in obscurity.
The gory Tate-LaBianca murders landed Charles Manson in prison for the remaining 47 years of his life, but it made him a household name, a “dark celebrity.” At least forty books have been written about him, and more keep coming out. Nearly all depict him as a twisted, evil, mass murderer and have colorful but haunting titles such as: Death Trip, The Unholy Trail, Member of the Family, The Shadow Over Santa Susana, Music Mayhem Murder, Helter Skelter, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, and Surfin’ with Satan. No, they don’t flatter him, but they do focus attention on him, adding to his aura. Charles Manson may have as much as or even more name recognition than Billy Graham.
Both Graham and Manson had a talent for drawing attention to themselves, they were expert showmen, and both cultivated their public image, though in very different ways. The two would seem like polar opposites. Graham lived a conventional, scandal-free life, so totally different from that of Manson. Manson’s style was an absolute, total caricature of just about everything conventional. He and his disciples –he called them his “family” — engaged in group sex and dropped acid. They also dedicated time to Bible study. Yes, Bible study was among their activities, and Manson’s favorite verses were to be found in Revelations. Verses such as:
“behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” . . . “And the four angels were loosed, that had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, that they should kill the third part of men.”
Using Revelations as a guide and LSD for added enlightenment, Charles Manson attempted to delve into the hidden meanings of the Beatles’ music.
Revelations is truly a strange book, and not everyone has been as taken with it as Charles Manson was. It’s been controversial since ancient times, and its place in the New Testament canon was hotly disputed during the 16th century Reformation. Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli did not consider it apostolic, and John Calvin reportedly said, “The study of Revelation either finds a man mad, or leaves him that way.”
Nevertheless, Revelations remained in the canon, where Manson eventually found it. Billy Graham also took an interest in it. Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is the title of a book Graham authored, and it’s quite as nutty as Manson’s eschatology, the difference being that Billy Graham’s version is conventional nuttiness, nothing original. Graham assures us that although there will be “nuclear conflagrations, biological holocausts and chemical apocalypses rolling over the earth,” we need not worry because when things get really out of hand, Jesus will show up, deus ex machina, to fix everything.
Fundamentalists are not alone in their fixation on Revelations. Many generations of poets, novelists and movie-makers have found inspiration in its pages, and who can deny that those verses are colorful and dramatic? The bizarre imagery seems to grab hold of our imagination, perhaps in somewhat the same strange way that Manson’s apocalyptic escapades and eerie personality do.
Everyone who knew Manson has described him as extremely charismatic. Indeed he must’ve been. Many normal, rational, level-headed people were attracted to him and in varying degrees fell under his spell. They included Hollywood celebrities, mostly people in the music world. Manson was perhaps the best connected mass murderer in U.S. history. The Beach Boys let the Manson family stay rent free at one of their houses for some months. The owner of a movie location, the Spahn Ranch, made the place available to the Manson family.
He was an aspiring rock musician, no doubt substantially more weird than most, but many rock musicians did tend to be eccentric. Manson was part of that milieu; he wrote songs and through his various contacts he hoped to get his music produced commercially. Here are a couple of stanza from his lyrics:
People say I’m no good
But never, never do they say
Why their world is so mixed up
Or how it got that way
They all look at me and they frown
Do I really look so strange
If they really dug themselves
I know they’d want to change
Charles Manson had his creative side and his sensitive side, even spiritual and idealistic sides. He gathered his flock together and taught them to love one another (literally) and he loved all of them (literally), and they loved him (literally) and came to worship him as their messiah; they obeyed him unquestioningly. He was their guru. Nevertheless, Manson did not call himself a guru. The term was perhaps too esoteric for him, coming from an Eastern tradition as it did; he seems to have been basically, at the bottom of it all, a Bible-Belt fundamentalist, though his interpretations and practices would’ve been considered heretical in the extreme.
Along with being the spiritual leader of his group and an outrageous heretic, he was also a guy who simply could not stay out of trouble. When he needed a car, he’d steal one, things like that. And he was always getting caught. Even much of his childhood was spent in and out of reform schools, and throughout his life he took routes that landed him in prison, time after time and finally for life. He seems to have been wired wrong, even more wrongly wired than most of us.
A childhood spent in brutal reform schools didn’t help much, nor did the prisons in which he spent years of younger adult life. He was released in 1967, and the end product was truly a monster, fiendishly manipulative and absolutely indifferent to the damage he caused, even to his followers who trusted him. He was a patriarch in the very worst sense of the word, a sociopath who used and abused people, especially women.
On the evening of August 8, 1969 he sent a team of his disciples to 10050 Cielo Drive in the Beverly Hills, where they butchered Sharon Tate and four others. Manson didn’t go with them to supervise. He just sent them out with instructions to “totally destroy everyone, as gruesome as you can.” And they did.
The next evening they went out and killed two more people, the LaBianca murders. On that occasion Manson accompanied his disciples, but left before the killing was actually done. There were also other killing sprees attributed to the Manson family; they were eventually convicted of nine murders. There’s some debate over how many they actually did kill; seven, eight, nine, a dozen, or maybe more. Nevertheless, it appears that Charles Manson never killed anyone himself. He just gave the orders and provided the inspiration.
“It was a collective idea,” Manson told a Rolling Stone journalist years later. “It was an episode. A psychotic episode, and you want to blame me for that?”
The Manson family’s “psychotic episode” took place in 1969, the same year that news of the My Lai Massacre came out. Several hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians had been slaughtered by U.S. troops, and many Americans were horrified to learn that our soldiers did such things. A low ranking army officer, Lt. William Calley, was eventually prosecuted and served three and a half years under house arrest. The trials of both the Manson family and Lt. Calley took place in 1970 and continued on into 1971.
Although Lt. Calley had participated in the killing at My Lai, it was higher ranking officers, not the lieutenant, who’d given the orders. Those orders, one soldier later testified, were: “Kill anything that breathed.”
“We have all had our Mylais in one way or another,” wrote Billy Graham in an article for the New York Times, “perhaps not with guns, but we have hurt others with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act or a selfish deed.” In the same article, published April 7, 1971, Graham also wrote, “Sherman was right, ‘War is hell.’ I have never heard of a war where innocent people were not killed.”
Billy Graham was not a pacifist. But could there have been some part of him that truly hated war and felt empathy and compassion for the soldiers who were sent to kill? That letter seems to come from a person who’s so full of love and understanding that he would even forgive mass murder, comparing it to harm done by a “thoughtless word.” Or was Billy Graham a cynical propagandist, trivializing the slaughter of 500 people, doing damage control for Nixon and cloaking it in expressions of Christian love for humanity?
My guess is that it was some of both, that Graham did have genuine feelings of love and kindness, and that at the same time he truly loved being called “God’s Ambassador” and was mesmerized by power, that is, having the ear of presidents. Graham spent more time as a guest at the White House than any other person, and has been called “the spiritual adviser to twelve U. S. Presidents,” which to varying degrees he was, but most of all to President Richard Nixon, with whom he had an especially close relationship. The two spent countless hours together, discussing the war in Vietnam. According to a thesis by Daniel Alexander Hays, “America’s most famous preacher was an active participant in promoting and even planning the war.” Graham urged Nixon to bomb the dikes in North Vietnam, even though an estimated one million people could’ve died as a result. That was farther than even Nixon was willing to go. The dikes were not bombed.
The Nuremberg Tribunal had sentenced Nazi official Seyss-Inquart to death for destroying dikes in Holland during World War II. Despite that ruling, the U.S. bombed dams in North Korea in 1953. For advising to do likewise in Vietnam, Rev. Graham is sometimes called “an aspiring war criminal.” That suggestion was just one incident in the seven-decade long ministry of Rev. Billy Graham. Graham met with every U.S. president, promoting wars, preaching death and destruction in the name of Jesus.
Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as in the Gospel of Thomas, does not look at all like a warmonger. And yet, here was this preacher, often referred to in the corporate media as “God’s Ambassador,” being part of the war effort, sending young Americans, many of them only 17 or 18 years old, to Vietnam where they’d kill or be killed. And huge numbers were killed. An estimated three million Vietnamese died; 58,000 American GIs also died in Vietnam, and a lot more died after returning to the U.S. They even died in front of us, right here at home in stateside USA, literally before our very eyes. So many people died before their time.
And while Rev. Billy Graham was preaching his sermons, Charles Manson was getting out of prison, recruiting disciples, reading the scriptures with them and leading them through the dark passages of Revelations, instructing them in eschatology, and finally sending them forth as angels of the apocalypse. It was quite as though Manson were attempting to act out the bizarre verses he’d been reading together with his disciples, verses such as: “the four angels were loosed, that had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, that they should kill . . .”
It was bad enough that Manson would kill all those people; it was even worse that he would involve others in the killing, thus screwing up their lives as well; several of his followers who believed in him and gave him their trust spent the rest of their years in prison. Thinking of this, I sometimes wonder how many of the GIs who lost their lives in Vietnam had been persuaded by the preaching of Rev. Billy Graham that fighting the war was their duty to God and Country.
Manson recruited young people, mostly women, many of them teenagers, about the same age as the GIs who went to Vietnam. He was, in some very deep sense, the domestic face of the brutality of that era of war, and he seemed to recognize that himself. “I am just a reflection of every one of you,” he said at his trial.
The Tate-LaBianca murders were uniquely bizarre, but they weren’t the only killings going on here in stateside USA. That was also the era of the Kent State shootings (1970), the assassinations of JFK (1963) and of Malcolm X (1965), followed by those of RFK (1968), of MLK (1968), and the extra-judicial executions of Black Panthers. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) where millions of people, possibly the entire human race, came close to being wiped out.
And My Lai wasn’t the only U.S. atrocity in Vietnam. There was the CIA’s notorious Phoenix Program, the search and destroy slaughter operation which ended the lives of 50,000 Vietnamese. Manson killed nine people, so do the arithmetic: The Phoenix Program was the equivalent of about five thousand Manson murders. And there was also the air war, the massive U.S. bombing of Vietnam, not to mention the intense bombing of Cambodia and Laos, which killed millions.
While that was going on in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon held a news conference and said, referring to Charles Manson, “here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Hearing of that, Manson said, “Here’s a man who is accused of hundreds of thousands of murders, accusing me of eight murders.”
Nixon prolonged the war, but he didn’t start it. Responsibility for that could be shared by a couple of generations of the 0.01 percent and their functionaries. Among the functionaries were the propagandists, the ones who spoke for, promoted and popularized those policies. These would include some editors, journalists and pundits, movie makers, official historians, artists and sports heroes, celebrities, and, of course, religious figures, most prominent of whom was Reverend Billy Graham who did so much to weaponize religion.
Billy Graham was discovered and promoted in 1949 by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst Sr. (1863 -1951) — that same newspaper owner Hearst, at this time nearing the end of his long life, who had promoted the Spanish-American war back in 1898. Graham preached Hearst’s kind of religion: anticommunism, even anti-liberalism and support for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
And at the end of it all there’d be party-time. Heaven, as envisioned by America’s Pastor, would be a place where he and his followers would “have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we’ll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible.”
So we can see right there why Reverend Billy Graham hated Communists and Anarchists — those ornery souls who’d organize those overworked, long suffering, downtrodden angels into a labor union, hold a general strike, and tell Rev. Billy to get his own fuckin’ drinks.
There used to be a bumper sticker reading: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” And that does seem to be the creed of the power elite, including the media moguls who brought Rev. Graham to fame and maintained him in the public eye. The corporate media made Billy Graham famous and named him “God’s Ambassador.” He owed his fame to the corporate media, and the same could be said of many celebrities, including Charles Manson.
There are many dramatic newsworthy stories that get little, if any, coverage and without massive, ongoing coverage by the media, nearly fifty years of it now, the Manson murders would’ve been mostly forgotten. Which is not to deny that it is well worth looking at for what it may tell us about the world we live in. Historians and sociologists need to study the stories of both Billy Graham and Charles Manson. But study them together — they belong on the same page.
• Author’s Note: Steve Gilmartin and Virginia Browning contributed to this essay.