The Obamas meet with ailing evangelist Billy Graham

MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) - President Barack Obama made a pilgrimage Sunday to Billy Graham's mountainside home, concluding his North Carolina vacation...

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Associated Press Writer

MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) — President Barack Obama made a pilgrimage Sunday to Billy Graham’s mountainside home, concluding his North Carolina vacation with his first meeting with the ailing evangelist who has counseled commanders in chief since Dwight Eisenhower.

The 48-year-old president made the short drive to Montreat from Asheville, where he spent the weekend, to see the 91-year-old Graham and son Franklin, also an evangelist.

“Rev. Graham has obviously been an important spiritual leader to past presidents,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said. “He’s a real treasure to our country. And the president appreciates the opportunity to visit him at his home.”

Burton said he anticipated the two leaders to pray together during their private meeting, which lasted a short time. Obama had to leave for a memorial service in West Virginia for the 29 coal miners killed in an explosion on April 5.

Burton said that when Obama last spoke with Billy Graham, in a telephone call in November on Graham’s birthday, they said they would try to get together as soon as possible.

“The president wanted to meet with Rev. Graham for a while,” Burton told reporters who were kept outside the Graham compound gate for a meeting that was expected to last about a half hour.

“They were going to meet during the campaign when he was here for debate prep.”

Graham’s health prevented that October 2008 meeting from taking place while Obama’s campaign holed up at a resort to practice debate answers.

Burton said Graham was in good enough health to take the meeting on Sunday, which came up when Obama phoned Graham to wish him a happy birthday last year.

Asked about Graham’s health, Burton said: “He’s still as sharp as he ever was.”

DeMoss said the White House requested the meeting several days ago. He noted that the meeting had been tentative, given the president’s schedule and Billy Graham’s unpredictable health.

Billy Graham’s last crusade was in 2005, in New York. Since his wife’s death nearly three years ago, he has spent most of his time at his home. Public appearances have been rare, and his hearing and eyesight are failing. Graham’s personal spokesman, Larry Ross, said Obama’s visit was the first time a sitting president has met with Graham at his home.

Franklin Graham has been in the news recently, with the Army rescinding an invitation for him to speak at a Pentagon prayer service, citing what it said were his inappropriate comments about Islam.

In 2001, the younger Graham described Islam as evil. More recently, he has said he finds Islam offensive and wants Muslims to know that Jesus Christ died for their sins.

Graham said he regretted that the Army felt its decision was necessary. In a statement, Graham said he would continue to pray for the troops to “give them guidance, wisdom and protection as they serve this great country.”

Before the meeting with Graham, the president and first lady Michelle Obama played tennis at their Asheville resort.

Associated Press writer Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.

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