Elvis and Nixon: Two Icons, One Photoshop minute
Photo: Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon at the White House, 1970
Elvis still making headlines: I am just back from some cross-country flying with a couple of layovers in Memphis, Tennessee. Cover of the Memphis Commercial Appeal August 14, 2010 "Everyone Wants A Piece of Elvis":
The actual article is about an Elvis items auction in Memphis, complete story at the newspaper website for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Update from August 2010
ELVIS AND NIXON MEET
The Wikipedia article describing the meeting between Nixon and Elvis is unintentionally funny:
"Elvis Presley, bored with his confined existence in Graceland, leaves his home on his own for the first time since he was 21. He winds up in California and is convinced by an antiwar activist that he is responsible for the drug culture through his influence on The Beatles.
...Nixon, wanting desperately to win over the youth of America, which he views as hating him, decides to meet with Elvis in an attempt to improve his image with the "kids".
This description leans a bit toward the surreal. It is somewhat cinematic, consisting of location changes and very specific motivations and emotions, spun together like the steps of a movie plot.
From what I have read about the details of the meeting, it seems more like two national figures who weren't exactly sure what they were trying to accomplish came together briefly for an indistinct purpose. In Elvis' case, that he pursued a similar adventure trying to meet with FBI chief Hoover (scroll down page for more on this) might indicate a fannish admiration for some of the then-powerful Washington DC political figures.
Elvis and Nixon shared a kind of similarity, and the closeted existence of their lives and fame puts them into the same realm of opaque celebrity.
Elvis and Nixon
Both men scaled to amazing heights of popularity: Nixon won the 1972 second term election with an overwhelming 520 electoral votes to his challenger's 17 (George McGovern). Elvis is the well-known "King of Rock and Roll" and a cultural icon that can be identified nearly the world over.
Egil "Bud" Krogh was a Nixon aide who was present at the meeting:
It was December 21, 1970. I got a call from Dwight Chapin, who was one of my best friends on the White House staff. And he said, 'The King is here'. And I said, 'King who?' I looked at the President's schedule and said, 'There aren't any kings on the president's schedule'. He said, 'No, not just any two-bit king, the real king. The King of Rock--Elvis. He's right here in Washington and he wants to see the president'. And I thought that was just an elaborate practical joke. . . . We did those things in those days. I felt that this is just a joke, that this wasn't true. But he sent over a letter that he said had been written by Elvis Presley, asking to meet with the president to help him with the drug problem ...
...Elvis was telling the president how difficult it was to play in Las Vegas. The president said, 'I understand, Las Vegas is a tough town'.
Krogh wrote a small book about the event When Elvis Met Nixon available from amazon.com. Particularly funny is how Elvis and his two bodyguards looted Nixon's desk for souvenirs and gifts.
Elvis' original note to Nixon asking to meet
Elvis' original note to Nixon which
resulted in the in-person visit:
Click to enlarge to read. Includes the
6 pages of Elvis' letter to Nixon
"I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal agent..."
Elvis came to see Nixon on December 21, 1970.
The "talking points" for the meeting were mostly ignored during the chat Elvis and Nixon shared. But the intentions on Nixon's side were outlined in this staff memo:
THE WHITE HOUSE
December 21, 1970
MEMORANDUM FOR: THE PRESIDENT
December 21, 1970
12: 30 p. m. Meeting with Elvis Presley
To thank Elvis Presley for his offer to help in trying to stop the drug epidemic in the country, and to ask him to work with us in bringing a more positive attitude to young people through-out the country.
In his letter to you, Elvis Presley offered to help as much as possible with the growing drug problem. He requested the meeting with you this morning when he presented himself to the guard at the Northwest Gate bearing a letter.
Bud Krogh (staff)
III. TALKING POINTS
A. We have asked the entertainment industry - both television and radio - to assist us in our drug fight.
B. You are aware that the average American family has 4 radio sets; 98% of the young people between 12 and 17 listen to radio. Between the time a child is born and he leaves high school, it is estimated he watches between 15, 000 and 20,000 hours of television. That is more time than he spends in the classroom.
C. The problem is critical: As of December 14, 1970, 1,022 people died this year in New York alone from just narcotic related deaths. 208 of these were teenagers.
D. Two of youth's folk heroes, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, recently died within a period of two weeks reportedly from drug-related causes. Their deaths are a sharp reminder of how the rock music culture has been linked to the drug sub-culture. If our youth are going to emulate the rock music stars, from now on let those stars affirm their conviction that true and lasting talent is the result of self motivation and discipline and not artificial chemical euphoria.
E. Suggestions for Presley activities:
1. Work with White House Staff
2. Cooperate with and encourage the creation of an hour Television Special in which Presley narrates as stars such as himself sing popular songs and interpret them for parents in order to show drug and other anti-establishment themes in rock music.
3. Encourage fellow artists to develop a new rock musical theme, “Get High on Life.”
4. Record an album with the theme "Get High on Life" at the federal narcotic rehabilitation and research facility at Lexington, Kentucky.
5. Be a consultant to the Advertising Council on how to communicate anti-drug messages to youth.
In 1970 Nixon was still building the popularity that would carry him to a landslide in the 1972 elections. Elvis was still basking in the fame and fortune after his "comeback" TV show from December 1968 which then catapulted him to money-making headline shows in Las Vegas, reviving his music making career after a long sojourn in films. He had also started doing the endless touring that would amount to 1,145 shows before his death in 1977.
Elvis Presley 6-page letter to Nixon
Click to view image of the hand-written letter.
Nixon's note back to Elvis:
When Elvis died: I heard it on the afternoon news from KY3 TV from Springfield, Mo, broadcasting into the Arkansas Ozarks - - many people around me immediately went right into tears at the news.
In the years following Elvis' death, I traveled between DC and Arkansas by greyhound bus several times, and getting long stopovers in Memphis meant seeing floods of Elvis trinkets, books, shirts and just about anything else that could bear either a likeness of the man or some slogan or logo derived from his identity as the "King of Rock and Roll." The souvenir shops are nothing like the pawn shops in NYC and sometimes looked like huts, apparently because it's a cheap way to build and the best way to take advantage of breezes in the oppressive summer heat across the south. They would be in open spaces along the highway well outside of Memphis, selling nothing but Elvis gear, and with large signs that said only "Elvis" on them.
Elvis' gift to Richard Nixon: A 45 Caliber Colt pistol
The Secret Service had an obvious issue with the gift for Nixon from Elvis,
so he did not carry it in on his visit into the Oval Office.
Sometime later someone took control of the licensing nightmare of Elvis products, legal and illegitimate, and streamlined the marketing, such that the numerous kitchen-table Elvis souvenir operations in the south were wiped out. What's left now are the cliche black-velvet paintings and the legal stuff that directly benefits the business operation controlled by Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla and, I suspect, their daughter.
Click to enlarge
As much as Elvis was beloved by fans who could have hardly known the man with any intimacy, there is the hatred of Richard Nixon, post-Watergate, held by people who likewise couldn't have known that fellow either.
Click to enlarge
Fame is some sort of peg that people get to hang their emotions on: love, hate, admiration, etc., and it exists without any actual personal relationship with the him/her who is the peg.
From the web page at George Washington University National Security Archive:
Of all the requests made each year to the National Archives for reproductions of photographs and documents, one item has been requested more than any other. That item, more requested than the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution of the United States, is the photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard M. Nixon shaking hands on the occasion of Presley's visit to the White House.
Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon together December 21, 1970
The National Archives in Washington DC has a special Elvis and Nixon exhibit online.
The actual Elvis and Nixon documents shown above belong to the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives at College Park. Digital versions were made available through George Washington University.
Elvis attempted to see J Edgar Hoover at the FBI building in Washington DC about a year later to again offer assistance, but without success for a meeting:
Cover to the Memphis Press-Scimitar on August 17 1977 announcing Elvis' death
Andy Warhol "Double Elvis" auctions at $37 million USD
MAY 2012: Elvis as a cowboy (from the 1960 film Flaming Star) is the source image for the 22-edition silkscreen run of "Double Elvis" which Andy Warhol produced in 1963. Nine of the 22 pieces are in museums, the rest in private hands, rarely appearing on the art market (the last time being in 1995).
[Below] Triple Elvis
Flaming Star - Elvis [below]
Contender King of Punch and Roll
Elvis in G I Blues (in living stereo)
Contender King of Punch and Roll
Related in a vague way: Bat Elvis
Below: City of Memphis from the air, August 2010:
The enormous steel object running parallel to the Mississippi River is an airplane wing.
Original Page December 1, 2008 | Updated September 8, 2012