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President Nixon meets Elvis Presley

President Nixon meets Elvis Presley



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On December 21, 1970, rock star Elvis Presley is greeted at the White House by President Richard M. Nixon. Presley’s visit was not just a social call: He wanted to meet Nixon in order to offer his services in the government’s war on drugs.

Three weeks earlier, Presley, who wanted to distance himself from rock-and-roll’s unseemly association with drug use and the counterculture, had met Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, in Palm Springs, California and offered to use his celebrity status to help promote the administration’s anti-drug campaign. Presley then flew to Washington, checking into a hotel under an alias on December 20. The next day, he and two of his bodyguards proceeded to the White House gates, where Presley handed the guard a handwritten letter. In the letter, Presley told Nixon he did not associate or agree with the “Drug Culture, hippie elements,” student protesters and “Black Panthers,” whom he believed hated America. He declared that he wanted nothing but to “help the country out” and asked to be designated a “federal agent-at-large.”

The guard immediately recognized Presley, but followed protocol and asked for permission to send him on to the White House. He apparently was not searched before being granted admission: Upon meeting Nixon he presented the president with a gift–a World War II-era Colt .45 pistol. The two were photographed shaking hands, Nixon in a conservative suit and tie and Elvis wearing tight purple velvet pants and an open-collared shirt with jeweled chains, a purple velvet cape slung over his shoulders and an enormous belt buckle. Nixon and “The King” exchanged pleasantries and agreed that “those who use drugs are in the vanguard of American protest.” Presley again reiterated his desire to do whatever he could to help influence young people and fellow musicians to reject drugs and anti-Americanism. At the conclusion of the brief meeting, Presley surprised Nixon with a hug.

On December 31, Nixon wrote a thank-you note to Presley for the gift of the pistol and for visiting him at the White House. He said nothing about enlisting Presley’s aid in the war on drugs, however. The administration’s ambivalence about the idea was illustrated in his aides’ correspondence at the time. In an inter-office White House memo dashed off the morning of December 21, the day of Presley’s impromptu White House visit, Nixon’s aide Dwight Chapin suggested that Elvis not be “pushed off on the vice president,” but be introduced directly to Nixon. He further noted that if Nixon wanted to meet “bright young people outside the Government, Presley might be the one to start with.” Aide H.R. Haldeman responded: “you must be kidding.” In the end, Nixon never offered Elvis an official position in his administration’s war on drugs.

Presley died from heart failure in 1977, which the coroner’s report said was due to “undetermined causes.” Speculation abounded, however, that his death was caused by a lethal mix of a variety of prescription drugs and obesity.


Document 1: Handwritten Letter from Presley to Nixon, Undated

Document 2: Transcription of Presley letter, Undated

Document 3: Memorandum for H.R. Haldeman from Dwight L. Chapin, 21 December 1970

Document 4: Memorandum for the President, Re: Meeting with Elvis Presley, 21 December 1970

Document 5: Memorandum for the President's File from Egil "Bud" Krogh, Re: Meeting with Elvis Presley, 21 December 1970

Document 6: Message from (Bev) to (Lucy), Re: Presley's Gifts to the President

Document 7: Letter from Richard M. Nixon to Elvis Presley, 31 December 1970

Document 8: Memorandum from Egil "Bud" Krogh to Neal Ball, Re: Guidance on Jack Anderson Column-Elvis Presley, 27 January 1972


When Elvis Met Nixon

The image looks like a computer-generated joke, or maybe a snapshot from some parallel universe where the dead icons of the 20th century hang out together—even Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon.

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But the picture is genuine, an official White House photograph of a bizarre encounter that occurred in this universe, in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970.

The story began in Memphis a few days earlier, when Elvis' father, Vernon, and wife, Priscilla, complained that he'd spent too much on Christmas presents—more than $100,000 for 32 handguns and ten Mercedes-Benzes. Peeved, Elvis drove to the airport and caught the next available flight, which happened to be bound for Washington. He checked into a hotel, then got bored and decided to fly to Los Angeles.

"Elvis called and asked me to pick him up at the airport," recalls Jerry Schilling, Presley's longtime aide, who dutifully arrived at the Los Angeles airport at 3 a.m. to chauffeur the King to his mansion there.

Elvis was traveling with some guns and his collection of police badges, and he decided that what he really wanted was a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs back in Washington. "The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him," Priscilla Presley would write in her memoir, Elvis and Me. "With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished."

After just one day in Los Angeles, Elvis asked Schilling to fly with him back to the capital. "He didn't say why," Schilling recalls, "but I thought the badge might be part of the reason."

On the red-eye to Washington, Elvis scribbled a letter to President Nixon. "Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out," he wrote. All he wanted in return was a federal agent's badge. "I would love to meet you," he added, informing Nixon that he'd be staying at the Washington Hotel under the alias Jon Burrows. "I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent."

After they landed, Elvis and Schilling took a limo to the White House, and Elvis dropped off his letter at an entrance gate at about 6:30 a.m. Once they checked in at their hotel, Elvis left for the offices of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He got a meeting with a deputy director, but not approval for a bureau badge.

Meanwhile, his letter was delivered to Nixon aide Egil "Bud" Krogh, who happened to be an Elvis fan. Krogh loved the idea of a Nixon-Presley summit and persuaded his bosses, including White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, to make it happen. Krogh called the Washington Hotel and set up a meeting through Schilling.

Around noon, Elvis arrived at the White House with Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West, who'd just arrived from Memphis. Arrayed in a purple velvet suit with a huge gold belt buckle and amber sunglasses, Elvis came bearing a gift—a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case that Elvis had plucked off the wall of his Los Angeles mansion.

Which the Secret Service confiscated before Krogh escorted Elvis—without his entourage—to meet Nixon.

"When he first walked into the Oval Office, he seemed a little awe-struck," Krogh recalls, "but he quickly warmed to the situation."

While White House photographer Ollie Atkins snapped photographs, the president and the King shook hands. Then Elvis showed off his police badges.

Nixon's famous taping system had not yet been installed, so the conversation wasn't recorded. But Krogh took notes: "Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest."

"I'm on your side," Elvis told Nixon, adding that he'd been studying the drug culture and Communist brainwashing. Then he asked the president for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

"Can we get him a badge?" Nixon asked Krogh.

Krogh said he could, and Nixon ordered it done.

Elvis was ecstatic. "In a surprising, spontaneous gesture," Krogh wrote, Elvis "put his left arm around the President and hugged him."

Before leaving, Elvis asked Nixon to say hello to Schilling and West, and the two men were escorted into the Oval Office. Nixon playfully punched Schilling on the shoulder and gave both men White House cuff links.

"Mr. President, they have wives, too," Elvis said. So Nixon gave them each a White House brooch.

After Krogh took him to lunch at the White House mess, Elvis received his gift—the narc badge.

At Elvis' request, the meeting was kept secret. A year later, columnist Jack Anderson broke the story—"Presley Gets Narcotics Bureau Badge"—but few people seemed to care.

In 1988, years after Nixon resigned and Elvis died of a drug overdose, a Chicago newspaper reported that the National Archives was selling photos of the meeting, and within a week, some 8,000 people requested copies, making the pictures the most requested photographs in Archives history.

These days, the Archives gift shop sells T-shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and snow globes emblazoned with the image. And Chris DerDerian, the Archives' director of retail, is thinking of adding an Elvis-Nixon souvenir charm.

Why is the photo so popular? DerDerian figures it's the incongruity: "There's this staid president with this rock 'n' roll figure. It's a powerful image."

Krogh agrees. "It's a jolt seeing them together. Here is the leader of the Western world and the king of rock 'n' roll in the same place, and they're clearly enjoying each other. And you think, 'How can this be?'"

Peter Carlson is the author, most recently, of K Blows Top, a travelogue on Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 tour of the United States.

President Richard Nixon inspecting Elvis' jewelry. (Ollie Atkins / Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum) Elvis' written request landed on the desk of White House aide Egil "Bud" Krogh, who set up the meeting and was on hand as the president inspected the King's bling. (National Archies) "I'm on your side, " Elvis told Nixon. Then the singer asked if he could have a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (Ollie Atkins / Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)

President Nixon meets Elvis Presley: Dec. 21, 1970

On this day in 1970, Elvis Presley met with President Richard Nixon at the White House, arriving at the gate unannounced with two bodyguards, to offer his services in the administration’s war on drugs.

Three weeks earlier, Presley, in seeking to distance himself from rock and roll’s link to the drug culture, had met with Vice President Spiro Agnew in Palm Springs, California, advancing his standing as the king of rock and roll to help curb illegal drug use.

White House guards recognized Presley but followed protocol and asked for permission to admit him. Presley, who was not searched before entering the Oval Office, presented Nixon with a commemorative World War II Colt .45 pistol encased in a wooden chest. The two men were photographed shaking hands: Nixon in a suit and Presley wearing tight purple velvet pants and an open-collared shirt with jeweled chains, a purple velvet cape slung over his shoulders and a huge belt buckle. During their brief encounter, Presley surprised Nixon with a hug.

Unknown to Nixon, Presley had sent him a six-page handwritten letter on American Airlines stationery — drafted during his flight to Washington — requesting a visit with the president and suggesting that he be made a "Federal Agent-at-Large” in the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

“First I would like to introduce myself,” the letter began. “I am Elvis Presley and I admire you and have Great Respect for your office.” He reported that he was staying at the “Washington Hotel” in a three-room suite where he had “registered under the name of Jon Burrows” and noted that he would be “here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent.” (Presley’s letter had already arrived at the White House but had been shunted to an aide.)

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On Dec. 31, Nixon wrote a thank-you note to Presley for the pistol and for the impromptu visit but said nothing about enlisting the singer’s aid in the anti-drug battle. In a memo written on the day of Presley’s visit, Nixon aide Dwight Chapin had suggested that Elvis not be “pushed off on the vice president” but be introduced directly to Nixon. He further noted that if Nixon wanted to meet “bright young people outside the government, Presley might be the one to start with.”

H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, responded: “You must be kidding.”

Presley died from heart failure in 1977 at age 42, three years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace.. A coroner’s report said Presley's death was due to “undetermined causes.” It was widely reported, however, that Presley had succumbed to years of drug misuse and obesity.

SOURCE: “ELVIS,” BY ALBERT GOLDMAN (1981)

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On this day in 1970, Elvis Presley met with President Richard Nixon at the White House, arriving at the gate unannounced, with two bodyguards, to offer his services in the administration’s war on drugs.

Three weeks earlier, Presley, in seeking to distance himself from rock-and-roll’s link to the drug culture, had met with Vice President Spiro Agnew in Palm Springs, Calif., advancing his standing as the king of rock-and-roll to help curb illegal drug use. Presley then flew to Washington and checked into a hotel under an alias.

White House guards recognized Presley but followed protocol and asked for permission to admit him. Presley, who was not searched before entering the Oval Office, presented Nixon with a Colt .45 pistol.

The two were photographed shaking hands: Nixon in a suit and Presley wearing tight purple velvet pants and an open-collared shirt with jeweled chains, a purple velvet cape slung over his shoulders and a huge belt buckle. At the conclusion of their brief encounter, Presley surprised Nixon with a hug.

On Dec. 31, Nixon wrote a thank-you note to Presley for the gift of the pistol and for the impromptu visit but said nothing about enlisting the singer’s aid. In a memo written on the day of Presley’s visit, Nixon aide Dwight Chapin suggested that Elvis not be “pushed off on the vice president” but be introduced directly to Nixon. He further noted that if Nixon wanted to meet “bright young people outside the government, Presley might be the one to start with.” H.R. Haldeman, then the chief of staff, responded: “You must be kidding.”

Presley died from heart failure in 1977 age 42.

A coroner’s report said his death was due to “undetermined causes.” It was widely reported, however, that Presley had succumbed to years of drug misuse and obesity.


When Nixon Met Elvis [6min]

First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. 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. I am on this plane with Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.

Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507. I have two men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.

I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very Private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today, tonight, or tomorrow. I was nominated this coming year one of America's Ten Most Outstanding Young Men. That will be in January 18 in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. I am sending you the short autobiography about myself so you can better understand this approach. I would love to meet you just to say hello if you're not too busy.

P.S. I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America also.

I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.


Elvis Presley Wanted a Badge

So how did a rowdy rock and roll icon meet the president and become a narcotics agent?

According to Smithsonian Magazine, his family had been upset with Elvis because of his shopping habits. Throughout his life, Presley had always given people elaborate gifts as a sign of love and appreciation. When he passed away his spending habits had actually left his Graceland estate with debt.

That Christmas, Presley had spent over $100,000 on handguns and 10 Mercedes-Benzes. He got frustrated by his family’s frustration and flew to Washington. He then flew to Los Angeles. It was at this point something was heavily weighing on Elvis. In addition to the guns and police badges he traveled with, Presley had been thinking about how he could get an official Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge. He then flew back to the capital and drafted a letter to the president on the way.

Part of it read, “Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out. I would love to meet you … I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent.” According to Biography.com, it was no small letter. Presley had gone on for six whole pages about becoming a “federal agent at large” to help counter “drug culture, the hippie elements.”

His reasoning may not have been as pure as he made it out to be. Priscilla Presley wrote in her memoir that the badge was a representation of “ultimate power” in his eyes. He wanted to have it so he could travel the country wearing guns and carrying drugs.


Thank you!

“The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ then-wife, wrote in her memoir Elvis and Me. “With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”

The fact that there was no transcript of the meeting has left much to the imagination (as explored most recently in the 2016 film Elvis & Nixon, starring Kevin Spacey as Nixon and Michael Shannon as Elvis.) What is known about what happened in the meeting comes from a memo that an aide who was in the room, Egil “Bud” Krogh, wrote up:

The President mentioned that he thought Presley could reach young people, and that it was important for Presley to retain his credibility. Presley responded that be [sic] did his thing by &ldquojust singing.&rdquo He said that he could not get to the kids if he made a speech on the stage, that he had to reach them in his own way. The President nodded in agreement.

Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles 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. The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest. Violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.

Presley indicated to the President in a very emotional manner that he was &ldquoon your side.&rdquo Presley kept repeating that he wanted to be helpful, that he wanted to restore some respect for the flag which was being lost. He mentioned that he was just a poor boy from Tennessee who had gotten a lot from his country, which in some way he wanted to repay. He also mentioned that he is studying Communist brainwashing and the drug culture for over ten years. He mentioned that he knew a lot about this and was accepted by the hippies. He said he could go right into a group of young people or hippies and be accepted which he felt could be helpful to him in his drug drive. The President indicated again his concern that Presley retain his credibility.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Presley again told the President how much he supported him, and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the President and hugged him.

The badge, aides later wrote, was an “honorary” one, but Elvis thought it was the real thing.

Both men would face swift falls from grace in the mid-1970s, between Nixon resigning in 1974 and Presley’s reliance on prescription drugs &mdash which, a former employee later explained, he saw as separate from the illegal drugs he was so eager to help police &mdash worsening in the lead-up to the heart attack that ultimately killed him. But the photograph would live on, as Nixon might have put it, in the nation’s collection of special mementos.


How Elvis Scored A Meeting With The President

Getty Images While no transcript of this meeting exists, Nixon likely accepted in the hopes that Elvis’ support of him would win over the younger generation.

While on his flight, Elvis penned a handwritten note to President Nixon in order to request a personal meeting.

“Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out,” he wrote. In return, he wanted a federal agent’s badge, which he was willing to wait for. “I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent,” he concluded.

Once in D.C., Elvis checked into the Washington Hotel under the name Jon Burrows. Then, he took a limo to the White House and dropped off his letter. On his way back to his hotel, Elvis stopped by the offices for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to personally request the badge, just in case the letter to Nixon didn’t work out.

However, back at the White House, good news was awaiting Elvis. His letter had miraculously found its way into the hands of one of Richard Nixon’s aides named Bud Krogh.

Getty Images “I’m on your side,” Presley allegedly told Nixon at their meeting.

Luckily for Elvis, Krogh was a big fan. Excited by the idea of getting Elvis and the president together, Krogh persuaded the Chief of Staff to set up a meeting. Just six hours after arriving in Washington D.C., Elvis arrived back at the White House for his meeting with the President of the United States.

In true Elvis fashion, the King arrived decked out in a purple velvet suit and a gold belt buckle. He also came bearing a gift, a mounted Colt .45 that he had taken right off of the wall of his Los Angeles home.

Unfortunately, the Secret Service confiscated the King’s gift before he could pass it onto the president. However, once they thoroughly checked him out, they escorted him into the Oval Office.


December 21, 1970: Elvis Presley Meets President Richard Nixon

As a coda to the sixties and as an introduction to the seventies, the meeting of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon was a moment that seems as incongruous as it is resonant. Albeit a more refined and less rebellious Elvis than the young rocker of the 1950s, the Elvis who entered the White House that day still signified a younger and more out-of-control America to the White House occupants he represented the youthful America with whom the Nixon and Johnson administrations had butted heads over recent years.

Left: Richard Milhaus Nixon, 1913-1994 / Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) / Oil on canvas, 1968 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution donated to the people of the United States of America by the Richard M. Nixon Foundation
Right: Elvis Presley, 1935-1977 / Ralph Wolfe Cowan (1931- ) / Oil on canvas, 1976-1988 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution gift of R.W. Cowan

Elvis, however, was not perceived as such by the rest of America. Having served in the army for two years in the late 1950s and having made much cinematic bubblegum over the 1960s, Elvis was rejected by the empowered youth of 1970, first for the British wave and then in favor of the newly recharged American rock-and-roll experience symbolized by Jim Morrison and the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, and Jefferson Airplane. By 1970, American youth saw Elvis as mainstream, if not bygone.

The meeting in the Nixon Oval Office that day was a monumental twentieth-century encounter. Jerry Schilling, one of Elvis's closest friends, accompanied him to the White House. Schilling writes:

We were probably the most unusually dressed visitors [the president] had in some time—along with Elvis in his gabardine . . . and I was in a leather jacket. But that didn't seem to faze the president a bit. So, we talked some football with him, handicapping the college season. There was a White House photographer in the room, and we all had our pictures taken with the president. As the photos were snapped, I couldn't stop thinking about just how far Elvis had taken me in all our years and all our travels. . . . Here were two great men, but great men who had found their success to be extremely complicated, and as different as they were, I think there was a mutual understanding between them.

President Nixon and Elvis Presley in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970 / Photo courtesy United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC

Egil “Bud” Krogh was the facilitator of the meeting and an executive in the Nixon administration. When asked last week to comment on the experience, Krogh told NPG, “It's sometimes hard to believe that I had the good fortune to be the White House staff person who got to follow up on Elvis's request for a meeting with the president on December 21, 1970. Of course, without Dwight Chapin, the president's staff secretary who pushed for the meeting, and without Elvis's own dedication to getting a badge from the narcotics bureau from President Nixon, the meeting would never have happened. But the stars were lined up and the rest was history, as proven by one of the most iconic pictures ever taken. It was a fun day!”

—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Schilling, Jerry (with Chuck Crisafulli). Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley New York: Gotham/Penguin Books, 2006.

The author also wishes to thank Egil "Bud" Krogh for his time last week and for sharing his story of his White House experience with Elvis and President Nixon.


Watch the video: When Elvis Met Nixon (August 2022).