Pop stars and politicians go together like bacon and eggs but there's never been an encounter between low culture and high office more bizarre than Elvis Aaron Presley's White House rendezvous with Richard Milhous Nixon on 21 December 1970. So as August draws to a close we conclude Carnival Saloon's inaugural Elvis Month with a look at one of my favourite chapters in the Presley saga.
According to the United States National Archives the photo of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon is its most requested item, more so than the Bill of Rights or the Constitution. The National Archives website chronicles this odd meeting brilliantly and I'd encourage you take a look, pore over the photos and read the first-hand accounts and documents. But if that's too much trouble here's the condensed version.
Elvis was a man obsessed with firearms and collecting police insignia. Wherever he went he'd try to get his hands on a local law enforcement badge. As I wrote in my That's The Way It Is post there was nothing counter-cultural about Elvis by 1970. He saw himself apart from the hippies and the peace protesters who epitomised the age. The ultimate symbol of this opposition would be getting himself a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. That meant an excursion to the Nation's Capital.
Presley's uninvited trip to Washington was unusual in many ways, not least because he told no one except his Memphis Mafia pals Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. You can watch Jerry's recollection of the escapade here:
On the flight to DC Presley put pen to American Airlines paper and wrote an incredible six-pager in which he expressed admiration for the President and asked to be made a "Federal Agent at Large". As well as claiming to be familiar with "Communist brainwashing" techniques he also writes, presumably without irony, that he had done an "in-depth study of drug abuse".
The minutes of the hastily arranged meeting also make first-rate reading. "Presley immediately began showing the President his law enforcement paraphernalia including badges from police departments in California, Colorado
and Tennessee." The no doubt baffled Nixon "mentioned that he thought Presley could reach young people, and that it was important for Presley to retain his credibility." The highlight of the tête-à-tête for me is Elvis' attack on The Beatles. Although he was happy to sing their songs to the Vegas faithful he told Dick that the Fab Four "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".
Did Elvis get his prized badge? Earlier in the day John Finlator, the Bureau's Deputy Director, had given The King the brush-off telling him that badges only went to "those employees directly connected with the agency". An extremely pissed-off Presley was forced to try his luck in the Oval Office.
In his definitive biog Careless Love Peter Guralnick writes that Elvis brought up the badge subject with Nixon towards the end of the meeting. He quotes Nixon adviser Bud Krogh's account.
"The President looked a little uncertain at this request. He turned to me and said, 'Bud, can we get him a badge?' I couldn't read what the President really wanted me to say. 'Well sir,' I answered him, 'if you want to give him a badge, I think we can get him one.' ... Elvis was smiling triumphantly. 'Thank you very much, sir. This means a lot to me,'... Elvis then moved up close to the President and, in a spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around him and hugged him. President hugging was not, at least in my limited experience, a common occurrence in the Oval Office. It caught the President - and me - off guard. The President recovered from his surprise and patted Elvis on the shoulder. 'Well, I appreciate your willingness to help, Mr Presley.'"
In return for this kindness Presley told Nixon that he'd brought him a chrome-plated World War II Colt .45 that he'd been forced to leave with the President's Secret Service detail. In a letter written on New Year's Eve Nixon thanked Elvis for the pistol, "You were particularly kind to remember me with this impressive gift, as well as your family photographs, and I am delighted to have them for my collection of special momentos".
On returning to Graceland for Christmas Elvis dispensed presidential presents to his family and excitedly retold the tale of Mr Presley Goes To Washington. Peter Guralnick quotes Priscilla Presley, "He was like a kid; it was like nothing had ever happened [to precipitate the trip]. He talked about how he got to meet President Nixon and told him all about how he was getting drugs off the streets."
What a story! David Frost will disagree and there are some, I'm sure, who will rate Nixon's handshake with Mao Zedong as more significant but when it comes to encounters with Tricky Dicky there's no contest as to which is my favourite.
I've thoroughly enjoyed my month with the King. I hope you have too. As ever, do leave a comment below. Thank you very much.
Carnival Saloon's Elvis Month
Elvis: That's The Way It Is - triumphant 197o concert film
Song-Poem Tributes to the King - amateur songwriting oddities
The Burger & the King - interview with director James Marsh
When Nixon Met Elvis - brilliant national Archives site with photos and documents
Dear Mr. President: The Day Elvis Met Nixon- Buy Bud Krogh's book at Amazon