Peggy Noonan: Billy Graham had an ability to 'speak to the common believing heart'

You know the miraculous life of Louis Zamperini, whose story was told in Laura Hillenbrand’s epic, lovely book, “Unbroken.” Louis was the delinquent, knockabout son of Italian immigrants in Torrance, Calif., who went on to run for America in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, then joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor. He crashed in the Pacific, drifted in a raft on open sea for 47 days, came near death—shark attacks, storms, strafing by Japanese bombers—and survived, only to be captured by enemy troops. He spent two years in Japanese prison camps—beaten, tortured, brutalized as much as a person can be and still live.

He came back a hero, shocked to be alive. But his life went from rise to descent—rage, alcoholism, destruction. He couldn’t focus enough to make a living, couldn’t stop the downhill slide. His wife, Cynthia, announced she was leaving. One day a neighbor told them of something going on in town, in L.A. An evangelist named Billy Graham had set up a tent and invited the public. Cynthia grabbed at the straw, but Louie refused. He wasn’t going to watch some con man screaming. Cynthia argued for days and finally fibbed. Billy Graham, she said, talks a lot about science. Louie liked science. So he went, grudgingly, and they sat in the back. The following quotes are from “Unbroken.”

This is what Billy Graham looked like: “His remarkably tall blond hair fluttered on the summit of a remarkably tall head, which in turn topped a remarkably tall body. He had a direct gaze” and “a southern sway in his voice.” Studio chiefs saw a leading man and offered him a movie contract. Graham laughed and said he wouldn’t do it for a million a month. He was 31 and had been traveling the world for years.

This is what he hid: He was wearing out. “For many hours a day, seven days a week, he preached to vast throngs, and each sermon was a workout, delivered in a booming voice, punctuated with broad gestures of the hands, arms, body. He got up as early as five, and he stayed in the tent late into the night, counseling troubled souls.” His weight dropped and there were circles under his eyes. “At times he felt that if he stopped moving his legs would buckle, so he took to pacing his pulpit to keep himself from keeling over.”

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