ONE STRANGE MOMENT IN HISTORY occurred when President Richard Nixon (the crook) welcomed Elvis Presley (the king) to the White House on December 21, 1970. The president posed for photos with the reclusive singer, making it appear as though Tricky Dick was receiving the endorsement of one of the least political celebrities in the world.
In an article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of its occurrence, The Washingtonian referred to it as “one very strange Oval Office moment.” Their article reviewed that day, opening with this paragraph:
“Fifty years ago today, Elvis Presley decided to drop by the White House on a whim to meet Richard Nixon. The strangely funny encounter has become one of the most enduringly popular Oval Office moments in history: The bejeweled rock icon, in purple velvet pants and a matching cape blazer, shakes hands with the staid president for a photo-op that looks like it could’ve been fake.”
The day that Richard Nixon met Elvis Presley in the Oval Office was one strange moment in history!
According to those who were there, that does not begin to do justice to the whole thing. Members of Presley’s entourage who accompanied him—bodyguards/buddies Jerry Schilling and Sonny West—said the singer was stoned when he met the President. Looking at the photos, that’s easy to accept.
All that aside, I am using the meeting to address two points here:
1. Presley was not endorsing Nixon. In fact, a political statement of any kind was out of the question. Elvis wanted something and only the President of the United States could get it for him.
What was it?
2. Presley’s life would be filled with a series of “one very strange moment” after another for the rest of his not-long life.
Why was that?
As this strange moment in history was unfolding, the documentary Elvis – That’s The Way It Is (“a film about him”) was playing in theaters across the country. In the movie, Elvis is seen as being vibrantly healthy and youthfully energetic, completely at odds with the drug-dominated “lifestyle” he was embracing at Graceland.
One strange moment in history
Elvis Presley kept his political views so close to his vest that it’s difficult to speculate on how he even voted. I heard rumors back in the ’60s and ’70s that both major political parties had wooed him to consider running for Governor of Tennessee. (This shows how little homework those politicos did because it would have meant that Colonel Parker—an “illegal alien”—would have been running the state.)
We can assume that he was genuinely distraught over the assassinations of Martin Luther King (in Presley’s hometown of Memphis on April 4, 1968) and Robert “Bobby” Kennedy (in Presley’s hometown away from home, Los Angeles, on June 5, 1968). This could easily persuade many like-minded people that Elvis was, in fact, a bit of a liberal Democrat.
In today’s polluted political climate, it is almost impossible to imagine a right-winger not having been jubilant over both murders, but it was possible to be a Rep*blican in the ’60s and still not have dove headfirst down the rabbit hole. I am saying that those like-minded people should not assume that Elvis was a Democrat.
I never think of Elvis Presley as a political figure and rarely see others refer to him in that light. I briefly thought he might be taking some hazy political stance in early 1969 after he released the singles If I Can Dream, In The Ghetto, and Clean Up Your Own Backyard. Essentially, these made up the Elvis Presley Trilogy of Social Consciousness.
But that didn’t last long as the Vegas Showboat Elvis quickly took center stage in his career.
I prefer this photo of the president and the king. Elvis looks happy (I assume he is clutching his badge) so Nixon’s apparent good humor isn’t as scary. This is the image I would like to have at the top of this page but it just doesn’t inspire the necessary cringiness of the other.
The cringeworthy photo
Long-time Elvis fan and A Touch Of Gold reader Joe Spera sparked this article when he wanted to know my views on the Elvis/Nixon affair. I responded and then realized that I had not done an article about the event, so why not now? My back-and-forth with Joe was casual (I have edited the words we used to make them a bit more “presentable” ) and brief. Read on:
Joe: I’d like to hear your thoughts on when Elvis met with Nixon in December 1970.
Neal: Fire away!
Joe: Many fans love the photo but me—it’s cringeworthy. The only credit I’ll give Elvis is for doing something on his own without the help of his sycophants (what Ringo called them), but not for throwing the Beatles under the bus to get his badge.
Neal: Agreed but the cringeworthiness is double trouble for me! It makes me cringe to see him with Nixon (see my comments to the Featured Image below) but, he really wanted that bloody badge and, well, you know what collectors can be like. This photo used to make me grin just thinking that Elvis bloody Presley got “high” to meet the President!
That seemed cool to me back then when I was an all-you-need-is-love “longhair.” But eventually, I became hip to Presley’s real problems and it made me cringe to realize that Elvis’ idea of getting high (pharmaceuticals) was very different from mine (pot and acid).
Joe: By the end of 1970, Elvis was tired of Vegas and needed a change. My first choice would have been for Elvis to “clean house” by letting go of Parker and the Memphis Mafia (but good luck with that happening).
Neal: Agreed that Parker should have gone and 1970 was as good a time as any. I didn’t see Memphis Mafia as problematic at the time. If I am reading things correctly, drugs didn’t become a serious issue until around this time. Until the Memphis Mafia effectively became “enablers,” they were just “the guys”—Elvis’ buddies and homies—to me.
Joe: A big change could’ve been performing overseas or giving Hollywood another shot. My vote? Take a break from performing and give Hollywood another shot. Either way, Elvis needed to get “cleaned up” and that would’ve been good for him both professionally and personally.
Neal: I tend to see Elvis as succumbing to chronic depression in 1970, something that was effectively not understood at the time. And, yes, I am doing some armchair (or “pop”) psychology here. I remember growing up that many people considered depression to be a sign of weakness—a sign of unmanliness. This was definitely not something Presley wanted to be perceived as.
Back then, chronically depressed people usually ended up with two options for shelter from their personal storms: addiction (alcoholism being the most common choice) or suicide. But if my assessment is incorrect—let’s say Elvis was bored beyond belief and did drugs as a diversion—changing management and career directions would have almost certainly helped. If it had, we would have gotten a lot more Burning Love and a lot less Separate Ways.
Finally, I agree that Presley would have benefited greatly from any new challenges presented to him, whether a grandiose tour of the planet or a movie with a demanding role in a major movie. I have an article about that already planned.
The impossible dream that Elvis was pursuing was acquiring this special badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to add to his personal collection of police badges.
To wrap things up, let’s look back at those two questions I posed at the beginning of this article.
Presley was not endorsing Nixon. In fact, a political statement of any kind was out of the question. Elvis wanted something and only the President of the United States could get it for him. What was it?
Since this blog is written by a collector and many of its readers are collectors, most of us should understand the driving force behind Presley’s otherwise outlandish behavior. If you have not known the allure of collecting, know that collecting anything is not a passive hobby—it’s very active and can require the expenditure of great amounts of time, energy, and money. If done within reasonable limits—which vary with each individual—it can be personally and socially rewarding.
But, taken to extremes, collecting can affect an individual as though it’s a disease or, more accurately, a personality disorder. Prior to this one very strange moment, there was nothing in the mainstream media and little in fandom to suggest that Presley had passed from being a reasonable collector of police badges to being a badge nut running amok. After this moment, other instances of an obsessed Elvis started finding their way out of the confines of Memphis and Las Vegas to the fans.
Presley’s life would be filled with a series of “one very strange moment” after another for the rest of his not-long life. Why was that?
People who don’t like—hell, actively hate—Elvis ascribe his decline in health, appearance, and attitude to a sloppy approach to life and a fondness for dulling his mind and senses with “recreational drugs.” The official autopsy of Presley found multiple prescription drugs in his body but not even a trace of any illegal drugs (heroin, cocaine, etc.) often found in overdose cases.
Presley did not partake of recreational drugs except to experiment with a few of the more popular ones (he even tried LSD while it was legal). And recreational drugs would not explain his decline. But chronic depression not only explains Elvis Presley’s life but also the life of Gladys Presley, a person who should have been sitting on top of the world with her son’s success.
Had Elvis lived a little longer, he might have been able to substitute Prozac for the countless uppers, downers, and in-betweeners he was gobbling and then use his PDR as a doorstop!
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was cropped from this photo. While this is the most famous photo to come from the several photos taken that day, it is a bit “cringeworthy” in that Tricky Dick looks smugly triumphant (always a bad sign) while Elvis looks, well, kinda out there (ditto). Believe it or not, this photo is the most requested photograph from the U.S. National Archives, making it an item more coveted than copies of the Constitution.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, there’s a lot more about the entire escapade of Elvis Presley wending his way into the Oval Office to get what he wanted. For more information, read The Washingtonian’s piece “Elvis Met Nixon 50 Years Ago Today in One of the Weirdest White House Meetings in History” by Rosa Cartegena by clicking here.
For an article that addresses Presley’s drug use at the time of the event, there is “The Real Story Behind This Famous Photo” by Matthew Gaskill, which you can read here.
There are several other sides that address this one very strange moment in time . . .
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)