Charlotte, N.C. — On Saturday, National Review’s merry band decamped from Tampa and flew here, to the Queen City, for the Democratic National Convention. And the minute I stepped out of the plane, I could smell the difference between Florida’s Gulf Coast and the Carolinas.
On the walk to baggage claim, the smoky scent of barbecued pulled pork wafted through the airy food court. The line at Carolina Pit BBQ was long, and I spotted a few familiar members of the fourth estate eating hush puppies as they relaxed on white rocking chairs.
Those reporters picked a good spot. The white rockers are thoroughly comforting. They’re locally made and handcrafted by the Troutman Chair Company, which uses oak logs from around the Tar Heel State. When you sit on one and look out through the glass window at the tarmac, it almost feels like you’re lounging on a porch.
Down by the taxis, after my fill of barbecue, politics hit me hard. The first people you see are the DNC volunteers. They’re handing out tote bags and maps, free goodies and pamphlets. They are also wearing the same uniform: navy Obama T-shirt, khaki pants, and “Charlotte 2012” lanyards.
Marcia, a kind lady who was working the check-in desk for delegates, offered me a guide to the convention. “Americans Coming Together” is the week’s theme, and inside the guide, the DNC repeatedly points out that this convention is organic, hip, and adapted for the Twitter age.
“Historically, political conventions have been viewed as closed-door exclusive events for donors and the party faithful, with limited opportunity for the public to participate,” the guide reads. “But the 2012 Democratic National Convention is different. We are revolutionizing national political conventions by engaging the public.”
In the same convention booklet, Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx has a letter to the attendees, assuring them that, even though they are in the South, Charlotte is decidedly the “changing face of the New South.”
“We are now a majority minority city,” Foxx writes. “Our schools embrace children who enter their doors speaking more than 100 languages. Our friendly, welcoming culture makes it possible for people to celebrate what makes them unique and lift up what brings them together.”
The convention’s logo, a light-blue “O” with a silhouette of eight people holding hands, is ubiquitous. It’s on the walls, it’s on the shirts, and it’s on the paraphernalia. Inside the logo, the supporters pictured resemble a rock concert more than a party convention; it’s the kind of graphic you’d expect to see on a Maroon 5 summer-tour poster.
As I waited for the bus to the rental-car office, surrounded by schoolteachers in HOPE shirts and spiky-haired college students, I saw an advertisement for the Billy Graham Library. It featured a picture of Graham and Lyndon Johnson, and a promise of presidential memorabilia.
I had to go. I picked up the car and took off down Route 4, the “Billy Graham Parkway.” After a while, I turned left up a secluded, wooded road, and arrived at the library. A man at the entrance warmly welcomed me, and I thought he was there to collect a parking fee. “Oh, no,” he laughed. “Everything here is free.”
If you’ve ever visited a presidential library, you’ll understand what the Graham Library is for the evangelical icon. It’s immaculately kept, it has an extensive bookstore, and it documents nearly every aspect of the aging preacher’s life, including his relationship with the occupants of the Oval Office, going all the way back to Graham’s friendship with Eisenhower.
There’s a dairy bar (Graham grew up on a nearby farm), an animatronic cow, and countless videos about Graham’s ministry. The museum is housed on the grounds of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, so it’s no surprise that the exhibits have a pastoral tone. At the end of the tour, for example, they ask you to sit and watch a decades-old video of Graham’s talking about being saved; then they open the doors and ask visitors to pause and look at a huge Thomas Kinkade painting of the cross. When one visitor started to rush off, a tour guide asked him to stop and consider God for a few minutes.
Graham, who is 93 years old, rarely comes by anymore. But according to a library staffer, on quiet days and often after the library is closed, an aide or a family member occasionally drives him over from his home. In his wheelchair, he’ll spend time praying by the grave of his late wife, Ruth, which is on the property.
For political junkies, the “Ambassador to World Leaders” section of the library is the most intriguing. (If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend The Preacher and the Presidents, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.) There are handwritten letters between Reagan and Graham — Reagan signed them “Warmest friendship, Ron” — and stories about Graham’s closeness with both Bush 41 and Bush 43.
Nixon once visited Graham’s childhood home, which was disassembled and moved to the property, and a picture of the visit hangs in the living room. Three years ago, Nixon’s and Graham’s names made headlines when tapes of the pair discussing Jews were released, but no mention of the controversial parts of the relationship is made here.
The countless White House anecdotes are fantastic. LBJ used to invite Graham for swims in the White House pool, and he once became angry when his favorite minister publicly disagreed with him. “I thought we were friends,” Johnson told Graham over the phone. John F. Kennedy’s father, wary of his son’s being considered “the Catholic president,” invited Graham to join JFK in Florida for a meeting a few months after the 1960 election. Joe Kennedy made sure the newspapers got pictures.
Ford loved to play golf with Graham, and Bush 41 had Graham spend time with his grandchildren on numerous occasions. Bill Clinton once saw Graham preach when he was a young boy, and Graham counseled Clinton during his scandal-plagued administration. A snapshot from a frail Graham’s meeting with President Obama is prominently displayed.
The only president who doesn’t seem to have been especially close with Graham is Jimmy Carter, a fellow southerner and born-again Christian. There were a few photos of Carter and Graham, but there weren’t many long, warm letters between Graham and the Georgian. I found this curious, since it didn’t fit the Graham pattern, and since both were, originally, Christian farmers from the South.
I paged through the Gibbs-Duffy book for an answer. Its take: Their similarities are what kept relations chilly between the two men. Carter didn’t need Graham at his side in the same way that many other presidents did. “No president was closer to Graham theologically or spiritually; but no president save Kennedy was as distant personally from him, either,” they write. As Graham once said: “Carter was very serious-minded. I didn’t see him much.”
Of course, I don’t expect Graham to come up much at the DNC this week, but if you’re in town, the library is worth a visit. It gives you a sense of the region’s political and religious history, beyond the city’s quirky cafes that were profiled in the New York Times this past weekend.
After settling into my hotel, I spent the rest of the day tasting some of the best (and cheapest) barbecue in the greater Charlotte area. By the Graham Library, I had lunch at Bill Spoon’s Barbecue, which has been “cooking the whole pig since 1963,” the red sign atop the door explains. For $5, you can get one of the best pulled-pork sandwiches you’ll ever eat, drizzled with a homemade vinegar-based sauce and topped with coleslaw. Bill Spoon’s homemade banana pudding is another gem.
For dinner, I drove 30 minutes to Rock Hill, S.C., just across the border, and stopped at the Kickin’ Pig. The place has the look of a dive bar but the feel of Mom’s living room. Its black-metal smoker stands outside, and a cloud of light smoke emanating from it surrounds the building.
“Everything here is naked, with no sauce,” one of the young servers told me as I looked over the menu. So I ordered some pulled pork, covered it with a mustard-based barbecue sauce, and had a side of beans.
It’s going to be a long week covering the Democrats’ celebration of President Obama, so two barbecue meals and a little prayer at Billy Graham’s library were not the worst way to spend Day One in Charlotte. The city may be the changing face of the New South, but the Old South has its charms, too.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.