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Obama Billy Graham

MONTREAT, N.C. – 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.

During the visit, which lasted about 30 minutes and included aides and advisers to both men, Obama had a private prayer and conversation with Billy Graham. The evangelist gave Obama two Bibles, one for him and one for the first lady, Graham spokesman Larry Ross said.

Obama was “extraordinarily gratified that he took the time to meet with him,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said.

Franklin Graham said his father and Obama did most of the talking. They reminisced about their roots in Chicago — Graham went toWheaton College and began some of his ministry in the region; Obama moved to Chicago after college and began his political career there. And they talked about golf.

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“The conversation was very cordial, very nice,” the younger Graham said. “When the president got ready to leave, the president prayed for my father, my father prayed for him.”

Graham said his father prayed for the nation and that God would give Obama wisdom in his decisions. The president prayed to thank God for Billy Graham’s life, Franklin Graham said.

Obama confided, like other presidents before him, how lonely, demanding and humbling the presidency can be, Ross said.

“That is a discussion that Mr. Graham has had with previous presidents who realize not only the demands but the loneliness of the job. And they’re humbled by that,” Ross said. “The only way one can do (the job) properly is to draw on spiritual resources.”

Billy Graham has been ailing for years, yet his son said the frail evangelist appeared as strong as ever during the conversation with Obama.

“It’s like my father rises to the occasion,” he said.

Afterward, Obama departed for a memorial service in West Virginia for the 29 coal miners killed in an explosion on April 5.

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, Burton said.

“The president wanted to meet with Rev. Graham for a while,” Burton told reporters who were kept outside the Graham compound gate. “They were going to meet during the campaign when he was here for debate prep.”

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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.”

Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for the Grahams, 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. 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.

Franklin Graham said he and Obama spoke briefly about the Pentagon spat, with the younger Graham saying that activists with an agenda were trying to pull all religion out of the military.

“I wanted to make him aware of that,” Franklin Graham said. “He said he would look into it.”

Franklin Graham also said he thanked the president for his decision to have the government appeal a federal judge’s ruling that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. Obama has said he plans to issue a proclamation again this year.

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 an Asheville resort.