the day the king met the crook (one strange moment in history)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 8 minutes.

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?

 

Elvis ThatsTheWayItIs movie poster 800xxx

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.

 

Strange Moment: a photo of President Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley in 1970.

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.

 

Strange Moment: a photo of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs given Elvis Presley by Ricard Nixon.

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.

The questions

To wrap things up, let’s look back at those two ques­tions I posed at the be­gin­ning of this article.

Question 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?

The badge.

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.

Question 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?

The drugs.

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!

The day that Richard Nixon met Elvis Presley in the Oval Of­fice was one strange mo­ment in his­tory! Click To Tweet

Strange Moment: a photo of President Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley in 1970.

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. 

 

Elvis GoldSuit

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 . . .

 


 

2 thoughts on “the day the king met the crook (one strange moment in history)”

  1. Rosa Carte­gena and Matthew Gaskill’s ar­ti­cles are in­for­ma­tive and nicely written as well, but your ar­ticle in­cludes chronic de­pres­sion, which should be cov­ered. Un­for­tu­nately, many fans don’t want to talk about it.

    Bor­rowing from your quote “doing some arm­chair (or pop) psy­chology here,” the artistic chal­lenges pre­sented to Elvis in the studio and on stage van­ished. Turning to drugs was Elvis’ way of coping with same­ness and boredom.

    Reply

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