So Moses turns for advice to his public-relations man as he's wondering how to cross the Red Sea, according to a story Larry Ross told in New York last week.
And the guy says, Here's what to do: stand at the water's edge and raise your staff, and the sea will part for you and then the Egyptians will all drown.
And Moses asks, Is that really going to work?
And the PR guy says, I don't know, but if it does, I can guarantee you two pages in the Old Testament.
The point being, behind every great man in history, there's a public-relations consultant spinning posterity on his behalf. That, in fact, is exactly Ross's preoccupation these days, as his longtime client, the 86-year-old evangelist Billy Graham, prepares to lay down his burden after more than six decades of preaching. Graham takes his crusade to New York City for three days this weekend, and has no plans beyond that; he has been invited to England in the fall but says he won't make up his mind until after the New York revival. Ross refers to his efforts for Graham as "reputation management," which means assuring he's remembered for the millions of people he has brought to Christ, for his reassuring presence at the side of presidents at times of crisis and not for any embarrassing things he might have said in casual banter with Richard Nixon.
You might think having as a client a great religious leader who has never been touched by sexual or financial scandal would make Ross's job an easy one. But there's always someone looking to score a cheap shot. Ross was the one who had to tell Graham, just before he went on "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1983, that the other guest would be Joan Collins, whose distinction was that she was the oldest woman to pose nude for Playboy. "OK, folks, you've had your fun," Ross told the producers, "but they don't share the stage, OK?" And when Griffin brought up Collins's escapades, Graham just remarked calmly that he'd already seen the magazine at the barbershop, and went on to deliver his message about what was wrong with American society. Which shows both of them at their top form: Ross talking to the media in language they understand, and Graham exercising what Ross admiringly calls his "complete iron-willed discipline" for staying on message.
It's a heavy responsibility Ross bears, as the self-proclaimed "point man for the kingdom of God," the guy the AP is going to call for the Second Coming. (In fact, the day after the first gulf war began, he fielded a request from a CNN producer seeking someone "who can talk about this Armageddon thing.") Ross, the son of a seminary professor, was working for a New York public-relations firm when he was hired away by Walter Bennett Communications to handle the Graham account in 1981; 13 years later, he struck out on his own, with Graham as his first and biggest client. Over the years he established what Graham's longtime associate Rick Marshall calls a "father-son" relationship with the evangelist. In recent years, as Graham (who suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's) has grown more frail, the burly, towering 51-year-old Ross has been a frequent, and comforting, presence at his side. It was Ross who helped introduce Graham to the Internet, to MTV and Fox News, and who explained to him, as he prepared to preach at a "youth concert night," the idea of a mosh pit. His 15-person PR firm in Dallas--A. (for Arthur) Larry Ross Communications, promotes its services with the slogan "value-added P.R. that defines values." Ross also represents another hugely famous, relatively apolitical preacher, Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life." Ross was the go-to guy last March when Ashley Smith, who had been kidnapped by the suspect in the Atlanta courthouse murders, talked her way to freedom by reading aloud from Warren's book. Warren, unfortunately, was unreachable in Africa at the time, but Ross, fielding more than 100 interview requests in 48 hours, managed to place him on "all four morning shows, 'Scarborough Country' and 'Larry King' " virtually the moment he set foot back in the States.
More generally, Ross consults with Christian organizations and leaders on shaping their messages for the mainstream media, a novel concept for many of them. "Jesus always asked, 'How can I help you?' " Ross says. "Dealing with the mainstream media is all about knowing what they want and figuring out how you can help them get it, which works to your advantage." He is a consultant in the "re-branding" of Promise Keepers, the Christian men's movement that has been in eclipse lately. "What we have to do is come up with words that have a more positive impact," he explains. "Instead of 'racial reconciliation,' we talk about 'unity'." In his regular seminars for pastors, he advises them to seize opportunities such as civic disasters to make themselves available to newspapers and TV stations hungry for commentary. Remember, he tells them, "there's a spiritual component to every story."
But his real mission now is the burnishing of Graham's legacy as the great preacher winds down his remarkable career. "The key here is finishing well," he says. "I don't need some cub reporter to make his reputation by toppling an icon." Graham's only serious embarrassment came in 2002 with the release of Oval Office tapes that showed him enthusiastically abetting Nixon's anti-Semitic musings. Ross recalls Graham's masterful quelling of the uproar: he said he had no recollection of making the remarks, but took responsibility for them, denied they represented his true feelings, and apologized extravagantly to Jewish leaders and organizations--with whom, in fact, he has had excellent relations over the years. Ross modestly declines credit for this strategy, if a strategy it was; but still, it must be a comfort to have someone like Ross on one's side. When Graham takes the podium this week for what might be his last press conference, Ross will most likely be right there, straightening his collar, helping him to the microphone, then stepping back to let the man of God speak.