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John McCain visits with Billy Graham

June 29, 2008 |  3:34 pm

MONTREAT, North Carolina -- Sunday morning, John McCain made a (relatively) last-minute stop in North Carolina to pay a visit to the world’s best-known evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, and his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There was also a cameo appearance by a country music star, which we’ll get to in a moment.Mccain_2

McCain planned the stop to pay homage to the man who has counseled every American president for the last half century. To say that the Graham retreat was out of the way is an understatement -- about a 45-minute drive from the airport, up a very windy road that did not look entirely suitable for a motorcade of brawny SUVs. The homestead, high atop a forested hill, was quite modest, at least from the outside (reporters were not invited in). The house is a large brown shingled cabin with a tall rough-hewn stone chimney, a screen door and an old iron wheel at the front door.

The visit came at the behest of the presumptive Republican nominee, who has had a somewhat rocky relationship with Christian evangelicals. We know McCain asked for the meeting because about 15 minutes after it ended, his campaign released a statement from Franklin Graham saying just that:

"Sen. McCain’s office had requested a meeting …and we appreciate the effort he made to travel to my father’s home," the younger Graham said. "I was impressed by his personal faith and his moral clarity on important social issues facing America today."

Graham added that both he and McCain have sons in the military and both have a common interest in aviation. The Grahams, as ministers, do not endorse candidates. And McCain didn't even ask for their vote, he told reporters later during an impromptu press conference on the tarmac in Asheville.

"We had an excellent conversation," said McCain, as five reporters put their voice recorders about three inches from his face to catch what he was saying, since his Gulfstream jet had already fired up its engines. "Bill Graham recalled that during the Vietnam War when I was in prison, he visited my parents in Hawaii twice and he and my mother and father prayed together for me, and I expressed my appreciation for that a long time ago.…I am very grateful for the time they spent with me."

The meeting generated no news but McCain got a handy souvenir photo of himself sitting between the Grahams, and that certainly won’t hurt him with evangelicals, some of whom don’t find him suitably conservative and are still offended by what some believe was his calculated attempt to garner moderate votes in 2000.

McCain then condemned Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" during the campaign. By 2006, however, with his eye on the White House again, he’d changed his tune, telling Tim Russert that he no longer would apply that label to Falwell. A short time later, McCain gave the commencement speech at Falwell’s Liberty University.

Oh, about that country music star. A half-hour into the senator’s visit, singer Ricky Skaggs -- a bearish middle-aged guy with gray hair -- pulled up the driveway and made his way into the house.  He was scheduled to have lunch with the Grahams. A short time later, Franklin Graham and Skaggs stepped onto the small porch to bid the senator goodbye.

-- Robin Abcarian

Photo: LM Otero/Associated Press