Happy Solstice. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the chance encounter between John Lennon and Ronald Reagan on the set of “Monday Night Football” in 1974. The occurrence was remarkable because of their polarity and stature, to be sure. Today, presidents and rock stars suck up to each other all the time for publicity, influence, even policy. But in the early 70s, rock music was still very much aligned against the establishment. And it’s safe to say that no politician represented the establishment like our 37th president, Richard M. Nixon. Yet forty years ago today, Dec. 21, 1970, Nixon received as a guest in the White House not only a rock and roller, but the rock and roller – Elvis Presley.
The photo of the two men shaking hands in the Oval Office is by now iconic, sold on coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters, and ball point pens. In fact, the meeting remained a secret for a year after it took place, as neither man necessarily wanted the publicity associated with the other’s company.
Elvis had been collecting handguns and police badges for some time, and by 1970, he wanted what he saw as his law enforcement holy grail: a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in Washington, DC. “With the federal narcotics badge,” his wife Priscilla Presley recounted in her memoir Elvis and Me, “he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”
Presley and his aide Jerry Schilling flew to Washington and had a handwritten letter delivered to the White House. The letter made it up the chain of command to H.R. Haldemann, Nixon’s Chief of Staff. If Haldemann didn’t initially see a Nixon-Presley summit as a good idea, he was likely swayed by the King’s manipulatively patriotic prose.
I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do NOT consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help The Country out. I have no concern or Motives other than helping the country out.
So I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials.
Presley added that he had a gift for the President, and gave the room number and alias he was using at an area hotel not named Watergate.
The meeting was set for noon the 21st. Upon arriving, Elvis was separated from his two aides and escorted to the Oval Office to meet Dick Nixon. The two men immediately warmed to each other, and after Presley showed off his collection of badges, he asked Nixon if he could have a federal badge. Nixon turned to his aide, Egil “Bud” Krogh, and asked, “Can we get him a badge?” Krogh said yes, and Elvis, grateful as a kid receiving a Christmas toy, wrapped his arm around Nixon and hugged him.
(Presley’s gift for Nixon was a commemorative, mounted Colt .45 from World War II, which was immediately confiscated by Secret Service but later delivered to the President, who thanked the singer in a note.)
The meeting happened before Nixon installed his taping system, so no verbatim recording exists, only Krogh’s notes. Nixon’s men had prepared some talking points in advance, including suggesting that Presley record an album with the theme “Get High On Life” at the federal narcotic rehabilitation and research facility in Lexington, Kentucky. (Perhaps it was meant to be Presley’s Live at Folsom Prison.) Whether the idea was floated or not, it never came to fruition.
News of the meeting did not hit the papers until a year later, when columnist Jack Anderson broke the story. No one paid it much attention. Meanwhile, the two men were already planting the seeds for their respective demise; Nixon via Watergate and his own suspicious mind, and Elvis by way of (ironically) drug abuse. Needless to say, Nixon was finished by 1974 and the King was dead by ’77.
Nevertheless, the meeting, and the images it spawned, endure. Since its public release in 1988, the Nixon-Elvis photo is the National Archives’ most requested. Author Jonathan Lowy managed to squeeze a 352-page book about the encounter. A 1997 film, Elvis Meets Nixon, starred Bob Gunton (the warden from The Shawshank Redemption) as Tricky Dick. As long as Americans are fascinated with the 20th century’s most famous performer and its most infamous politician, the meeting between the President and the King will be remembered as curious footnote – and an epic photo op.