Elvis Presley paid a visit to President Richard Nixon in 1970. But why? In the first of a two part series on celebrity visits to the Nixon White House, Christopher Benedict explains the bizarre reason why Elvis wanted to visit Nixon, and tells us of the fascinating and humorous events of the day that these two men met.
Part One: Federal Agent Elvis Presley
One of the official functions of a sitting U.S. President, call it a welcome diversion or necessary evil, is entertaining and being entertained by heads of state and dignitaries representing foreign countries. But they also host high-profile celebrities. Among the remarkable names to be registered in Richard Nixon’s White House guestbook (not to mention potentially recorded by his voice-activated taping system) were Ethiopian Emperor Halie Selassie, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Gleason, Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, John Wayne, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.
Within eight months of one another in 1970, two of popular music’s largest looming figures, then as now, would both mark uniquely divergent lines of trajectory terminating at the Oval Office and using Memphis’ Sun Studios as their shared jumping off point. The White House visits of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are as singularly idiosyncratic and given to mythology as are the men, and the host, themselves.
It can never be said of Elvis Presley that he was a believer in doing anything in half measures. This is a man, after all, whose musical legacy is often considered secondary to his penchant for gaudy jewelry and garish outfits, his frightful consumption of barbiturates and fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches, his collection of cars and guitars, airplanes and handguns. As a token of his genuine admiration for Nixon, Elvis chose one of his prized pistols (a chrome-plated World War II issued Colt .45) to be his personal ‘thank you’ gift for the pleasure of being able “…to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy”, as Presley concludes his letter of introduction. There was, however, an ulterior motive to Elvis’ overture, equal parts juvenile ebullience and questionable entitlement, owing to his odd desire to add a coveted badge to another of his cherished collections, namely a merit from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
One recurring theme in the recollections of those who knew him most intimately is Presley’s childlike demeanor and, consistent with any garden variety guttersnipe, Elvis was subject to irrationally impulsive behavior as well as throwing temper tantrums when his whims were repulsed or called into question. Following a confrontation with Priscilla and his father Vernon over his extravagant (even by his standards) Christmas spending spree, the King placed a call to Jerry Schilling, a member of Elvis’ infamous inner circle of bodyguards and confidantes known as the Memphis Mafia. Schilling recalled being given a laundry list of requests including reserving airplane tickets to Washington D.C. using the alias John Carpenter (his character’s name in Change of Habit) and a block of suites at the Washington Hotel under his other favorite secret identity Jon Burrows, hiring the very same limousine driver who chauffeured Presley around on his last visit to the nation’s capital, contacting his private security man Sonny West to meet them upon arrival to provide muscle, and permitting that tell Vernon and Priscilla no more than that he was somewhere safe.
Elvis as a Federal Agent?
Scrawled on American Airlines stationery during their East-bound flight, Elvis begins his missive to Richard Nixon by telling of a recent meeting with Spiro Agnew in Palm Springs (during which Agnew politely declined his gift of a gun) where he discussed with the Vice President his concern over the subversive influence he felt was being exerted on the country by radical fringe groups such as “the drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), Black Panthers, etc.” He goes on to claim to have “done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques” and pledge to act in the society’s best interest to the best extent possible of an entertainer, but that “I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large.” Vowing to “be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials”, Elvis was every bit the little boy needing only a gold star to pin on his flannel shirt to complete his make-believe sheriff outfit to go fight the bad guys on the playground or in the backyard. Only this constituted serious business in the King’s mind, albeit one which Jerry Schilling was beginning to wonder about the dubious stability of.
George Murphy, the Republican Senator from California, was also on Presley’s flight and promised Elvis during their mid-air discussion to contact BNDD Director John Ingersoll on his behalf as well as attempt to grant him an audience with none other than FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover. The meeting with Hoover never happened and Ingersoll was away from the office, so Elvis met instead with Deputy Director John Finlator who informed a dejected Presley that his bureau could neither accept private donations nor issue honorary badges. Just as he had disgustedly exclaimed “fuck the Colonel” prior to his petulant departure, so too did he walk away from the Narcotics Bureau sneering “fuck Finlator”, doubly intent now on relying upon the President’s good graces to get his badge.
In the White House
Nixon aide Emil Krogh was the original recipient of Elvis’ handwritten letter, passing it on to Dwight Chapin, Deputy Assistant to the President, who then handed it off to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman who, appreciating the public relations value of such a meeting, gave his official stamp of approval to Elvis’ December 21 White House visit. Although he was forced to surrender the “commemorative World War II Colt .45 pistol, encased in the handsome wooden chest”(which Nixon makes special mention of in his thank you letter dated ten days later) at the West Wing security checkpoint, Elvis retained his show-off collection of police badges and array of family photographs meant as an additional presidential offering. Flanked by Jerry Schilling and Sonny West and decked out in a lavender jumpsuit with a darker purple, practically knee-length velvet jacket to match and a white shirt beneath, the collar of which is so wide as to look like angel’s wings protruding from his clavicle, to say nothing of the gold belt buckle half the size of his head, Presley’s ostentatious entrance was betrayed by his initial nervousness, if one can imagine Elvis being star-struck. West, Schilling, and ‘Bud’ Krogh (who was present to make notes of the occasion for the official White House memorandum) all recalled the initial awkward moments due as much to Elvis’ wide-eyed anxiety as to Tricky Dick’s uncomfortably tense social conduct.
It evidently did not take Elvis long to gain his composure and assume command of the situation. Spreading his badges and photos across Nixon’s desk like he owned the place or was at least a frequent and informal guest, he launched into a bizarre diatribe against the Beatles who he felt, as Krogh wrote in his memo, “…had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme.” Krogh goes on to mention that the President replied how “violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.”
Elvis agreed and offered his earnest assistance in appealing to the anti-establishment factions that clearly made both men so ill-at-ease, but with whom Presley felt he could make a positive impact. He then made known his displeasure at being spurned by the BNDD and wondered whether Nixon would endeavor to procure him the Federal Agent badge they had denied him. After confirming with Krogh that this was possible, the President personally summoned Deputy Director Finlator to the White House. This gesture earned Nixon an enthusiastic bear hug, the Commander-in-Chief visibly stiffening in Presley’s embrace while skittishly patting his shoulder in kind.
Nixon presented the three men with tie clasps and cuff links bearing the White House emblem before posing with Elvis for the iconic photograph that quickly became the most requested image for reproduction by the National Archives, and is available now emblazoned on any number of souvenirs in the gift shops of the Archives, White House, and Nixon Presidential Library. Presley reportedly took it upon himself to help Nixon rummage through his desk for gifts to bring back for their wives before the President excused himself, leaving the trio in Krogh’s hands. He took the trio on a guided tour, during which Elvis said hello to and signed autographs for pleasantly surprised interns and staffers, then hosted a late lunch in his office where they were joined by John Finlator, who sheepishly handed over to the pill-popping rock star his paradoxically prized Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge. When Presley took his leave, it was with an expression on his face (in Krogh’s words) “like a kid who just received all of the Christmas presents he’d asked for.”
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Part 2 in this series will be published next week…
- When Elvis Met Nixon: A Bizarre Encounter Between the President and the King of Rock and Roll by Peter Carlson (Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010)
- Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (1999 Little, Brown, and Co.)
- Letter from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon (December 21, 1970)
- White House Memorandum from Dwight L. Chapin to H. R. Haldeman, Subject: Elvis Presley (December 21, 1970)
- White House Memorandum For The President’s File by Emil ‘Bud’ Krogh, Subject: Meeting With Elvis Presley, Monday, December 21, 1970, 12:30 p.m.
- Executive dictation of thanks letter from Richard Nixon to Elvis Presley (December 31, 1970)