Updated: 09:34 AM EDT
Clinton Honors Graham During Pastor's Last U.S. Crusade

NEW YORK (June 25) - As his final American revival meeting continued Saturday, a fragile Billy Graham was met onstage by former President Clinton, who honored the evangelist, calling him ''a man I love.''
Clinton spoke briefly before Graham's sermon and recalled how the man known as America's pastor had refused to preach before a segregated audience in Arkansas decades ago when that state was in a bitter fight over school desegregation.

''I was just a little boy and I'll never forget it,'' said Clinton, who was joined by his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. ''I've loved him ever since. God bless you, friend.''

Graham called the Clintons ''wonderful friends'' and ''a great couple,'' quipping that the former president should become an evangelist and allow ''his wife to run the country.''

Graham, 86, then launched into a short sermon that was interrupted by applause five times. Organizers estimated 80,000 people had come to the crusade at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens - about 20,000 more than the opening night Friday. The rally ends Sunday.

The evangelist is suffering from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease. He uses the walker due to a pelvic fracture and is largely confined to his home in Montreat, N.C. He had said previously that the rally ''will be the last in America, I'm sure.''

Despite his many ailments, he spoke strongly for about 15 minutes, in an address meant to appeal to young people. He peppered his speech with pop-culture references from Madonna to Bono to MTV. He wove a parable about bad decision-making from the plot of ''Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith,'' in which Anakin Skywalker becomes the villain Darth Vader.

''The decisions you make tonight will effect your whole future and your eternal future,'' he said, before inviting people forward to accept Christ.

Graham's son and successor, the Rev. Franklin Graham, sat nearby, ready to finish the speech in case his father could not. But Franklin Graham was needed only to help his father move onstage.
Seats began filling hours before the event began, as temperatures reached into the 90s. Speakers repeatedly encouraged people in the audience to drink water to avoid fainting. Graham waited to go on in an air-conditioned tent, with aides nearby in case of a medical emergency, and the stage was shaded by a massive canopy.

Graham's pulpit has a movable seat hidden from view, so he can sit if he feels unsteady. He used the seat Saturday only after he finished his sermon.

Graham is considering a request to hold a rally in November in London, but Franklin Graham said his father no longer adjusts well to time zone changes and does not like to be away from his wife, Ruth, who is also in ill health.

Graham has preached to more than 210 million people in 185 countries. He has been sought out by U.S. presidents and leaders worldwide and, more than any other religious figure, has come to represent the American evangelical movement.

Marie St. Louis, 34, who came to the event hours early Saturday with friends and family from her New York church, called the rally ''bittersweet'' because it was Graham's last in the United States.

''It's sad because he's such a legend,'' St. Louis said. ''When you think of Billy Graham, you think of a lot of things a Christian should be.''

06-26-05 08:18 EDT