Forty-two years ago today, one of the trippier meetings in the annals of U.S. music and politics went down when Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll and a global icon of the youth movement, paid a friendly White House visit to President Richard Nixon, that same movement's sworn enemy.
Put bluntly, it was an odd pairing. No doubt you've probably seen the photographic proof of this meeting of the minds many times before. Though the tête-à-tête wasn't well-publicized at the time, the indelible image of the disgraced president and the lascivious hip-swiveler shaking hands and smiling has become a cherished bit of kitsch ephemera. In fact, the photo has become one of the most requested of all time at the National Archives.
What most people don't know is why the hell Elvis was at the White House in the first place. Nixon was notoriously not a fan of rock and roll, and suspicious of anyone with ties to the counterculture. So why grant audience to the King? If you guessed that drugs were involved, congratulations, you remember the '70s.
For those of us who can only imagine a universe in which it is possible for Nixon and Elvis to hang out, however, there's good news. Thanks to Nixon's hubristic tendency to tape-record practically every conversation he ever had in the White House, Rocks Off was able to get our hands on transcripts of the President's meeting with Elvis that we believe to be completely legitimate and definitely not made up completely.*
Pulitzer, here we come!
But before we unveil the mysterious conversation, a little backstory. It starts with one of Elvis' bizarre hobbies: collecting police badges. He had badges from law enforcement agencies from all over the place, but the one he really wanted was a badge from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
Why? Well, according to Priscilla Presley in her memoir, Elvis believed the badge would allow him to legally enter any country strapped with guns and carrying any drug he pleased. That doesn't really sound like it would work, exactly. Then again, Elvis' reality was much different from ours.
The King scribbled out a hand-written letter to the President asking to be appointed as a federal agent and delivered it to the White House personally. Somehow, the letter wound up in the hands of Nixon aide Egil "Bud" Krogh, an Elvis fan who practically squealed with glee at the thought of getting Presley and Nixon in the same room together.
Krogh extended an invite to Presely, and the King swung by one morning. Thanks to the 100 percent real Oval Office tape transcripts we've acquired, we now know exactly how Nixon was informed:
Nixon Aide Bud Krogh: Mr. President, Elvis Presley is here to see you, sir.
Richard Nixon: Elvis Presley? The... tailback from Alabama?
BK: No, sir. He's an entertainer. A rock and roll singer. The Ed Sullivan Show, and so forth.
RN: Oh, goddamn, yes! The one with the, with the leg! Oh Jesus, tell Julie to go to her room and stay there! Lock her in! Ooh, I've read about these rock and rollers and their savage carnal appeal...
BK: He didn't come to see your daughter, sir. He came to see you. I think... I think he wants a job, Mr. President.
RN: A job? We've already got a band, Bud. Can he tune a piano?
BK: Not as an entertainer, Mr. President. I-I'm not sure what he wants, I guess, but I... believe he brought you a gun, sir.
RN: Jesus Christ, send him in!
Elvis had indeed brought the President a gun: a 1911 Colt .45, plated with gold. Elvis liked guns, and he thought they made good gifts. The one he brought to Nixon, mounted behind glass, had been plucked off the singer's own wall from his home in Los Angeles.
Elvis dressed down for the occasion, wearing a humble purple velvet suit accessorized with a giant gold belt buckle and stylish amber sunglasses. The unlikely pair bonded over their mutual disdain for the Beatles and the acid-fried draft-dodgers they imagined that the Fab Four were fashioning into a cult.
From the tapes:
Richard Nixon: Mr. Presley, I must say I'm rather impressed. This is a fine weapon. You're a good, solid American, with proper respect for the authorities. Nothing at all like those hippie Pinko brats from England.
Elvis Presley: Aw, Mr. President, I'm tellin' you, those Beatles are Communists, man. Brainwashin' straight from Moscow, man. All that 'love' they sing about, and not a drop of church music in it.
RN: Candidly, Mr. Presley? I consider them a potential threat to the public good. Music should soothe the mind, like Tchaikovsky, I'm sure you agree. Not this anti-American pap.
RN: Those... outside agitators' songs have no artistic merit whatsoever. It's drug music! You should see the files!
EP: Uh-huh huh, yeah, Mr. President, you said it, man. Bad for the kids.
EP: 'Cept for that ol' Revolver album, man. That baby shakes. Hu-uh!
RN: Well, yeah, that's one's pretty good, I guess.
Elvis told Nixon that he was on the President's side of the culture wars, and that because he was trusted by the youth, he could be of valuable help in helping the President communicate with young people.
Although he'd be shunned and vilified by the establishment for his sexy moves and mixed-race sound at the beginning of his career, by 1970, Elvis was the establishment. The singer was a megastar among people of all ages.
Whether because he believed that Elvis could help strike a blow in the War on Drugs or because he simply wanted to be done with the man, Nixon decided to grant the singer's request for a badge -- even though the agency's deputy director had already turned the singer down flat.
From the official* record:
Elvis Presley: I'm telling you, Mr. President, I could help you out a lot, man, out there talkin' to the young people of this great country. I seen what them drugs can do to people when I was on the road and out there in Hollywood. They'll wreck your talent, spoil your looks and stop your heart faster'n you can say, "Ki-yahh!"
*sounds of heavy velvet-on-velvet friction*
Richard Nixon: I admire your passion, Mr. Presley. Very nice head of hair, too. Very telegenic. I'd be honored to appoint you to Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Bud, have we got a badge lying around?
Nixon Aide Bud Krogh: Uh, no, Mr. President, I think that actually may be illegal...
RN: When the President does it, that means it's not illegal! Mr. Presley, we'll get you all fixed up with a Bureau badge for that fine collection of yours. How does it feel to be a duty-sworn narcotics officer of the United States of America?
EP: Aw, shucks, I'm flyin' high, Mr. President.
RN: Oh, splendid, splendid. *indistinct jowl noises*
Neither Elvis nor the White House made any attempt to publicize the meeting. It wasn't until 1988, when a Chicago newspaper reported that the National Archives was selling photos of the meeting, that word of the strange encounter began to spread in earnest. Within a week of that story's publication, more than 8,000 people requested copies.
And it's still getting requests today, 42 years later. There's just something about the photos that inspire fans to, say, make up entire conversations between the pair in their heads. For one day, at least, the bizarre parallel universe where Elvis and Nixon were pals was our universe -- no Adobe Photoshop required.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!