This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on Oct. 2, 1988.
Sometimes, amid that great tidal wave of the news that roars unceasingly from the media, some seemingly insignificant event drifts by almost unnoticed, only to resurface years later looking downright symbolic. It happened again this spring.
Until May, two of the nearly 10 million photographs in the various collections of the National Archives shared the title of “most requested” by the American public: a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a picture of the USS Shaw sinking at Pearl Harbor. Then, in one hectic week, those two historic photos were knocked off their pedestal by an avalanche of requests for something, well, a little less lofty — photographs of a secret 1970 Oval Office meeting between Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. At the archives, as elsewhere, the august had been dethroned by the absurd.
After an Elvis fan magazine and a syndicated column by Bob Greene alerted readers that they could purchase the photos, more than 8,000 Americans bombarded the Nixon Presidential Materials Project with requests. And who can blame them? The pictures capture an event that sets the mind reeling: The president of the United States meets the King of Rock-and-Roll. Elvis the Pelvis meets Tricky Dick. Good Lord, what did they talk about?
Dope, the Beatles, communist propaganda and the difficulties of playing Las Vegas. What else?
Their meeting — reconstructed from memoirs, interviews and recently released White House documents — was certainly one of the most absurd, ironic and just plain goofy encounters in American history.
It began with a quarrel over money. One day in late December 1970, according to Elvis biographer Albert Goldman, Presley’s father got mad because his son had shelled out more than $100,000 for 32 handguns and 10 Mercedes sedans on one wild shopping spree in Los Angeles. Miffed that his dad would get upset over such a petty sum, Elvis stormed out the front door of Graceland, wearing a purple velvet suit and two handguns, and disappeared.
“We were mystified,” Elvis’s widow, Priscilla, wrote in her memoirs. “For the first time, he was traveling alone — without even one bodyguard. Elvis didn’t even know his own phone number; nor did he carry cash. How was he going to get around?”
Somehow, all by himself, the King managed to get to the airport, catch a flight to D.C. and check into the Hotel Washington under the pseudonym Jon Burrows. But he didn't stay long. The medicine he was taking for a cold had caused an itchy facial rash, so he went looking for a doctor — by flying to Los Angeles. He found one, rested a couple of days and then, accompanied by an old crony, Jerry Schilling, caught the red-eye back to Washington. This time, he had a mission: He was determined to obtain a badge certifying himself as an agent of the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
The coveted BNDD badge would serve to unite two of Elvis’s favorite hobbies — collecting police paraphernalia and popping pills. “The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” Priscilla wrote. “With the federal narcotics badge, he could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished."
On the plane, Elvis confided his interest in the badge to a fellow passenger, George Murphy, the former song-and-dance man who represented California in the Senate. Murphy offered to make an appointment for Elvis at the BNDD. Overcome with Potomac fever, Elvis scrawled a letter to Nixon.
“I am Elvis Presley and admire you and Have Great Respect for your office,” he wrote in a childish chicken scratch on the first of six sheets of American Airlines stationery. “I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country.” Elvis’s concerns paralleled the president’s (“The Drug Culture, The Hippie Elements, The SDS, Black Panther, etc.”), and the King boasted of his expertise: “I have done an in-depth study of Drug Abuse and Communist Brainwashing Techniques.” He did not reveal that his “study of Drug Abuse” consisted mainly of engaging in it. Instead, he volunteered his services as an anti-drug ambassador to American youth, a job that he felt required credentials. “I can and will do more good if I were Made a Federal Agent At Large . .. " He could be reached, he confided, at the Hotel Washington. “I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent."
At 6:30 that morning, Dec. 21, 1970, Elvis climbed out of his rented limousine at the northwest gate of the White House. With his swollen, reddened face and his black cape, the King looked, Schilling later recalled, like Dracula. He handed his letter to an astounded guard and departed.
Inside the White House, the letter was forwarded to presidential aide Dwight Chapin, who summoned Egil (Bud) Krogh, who was working on a White House program to encourage celebrities to denounce drugs. Krogh, an avid Elvis fan, and Chapin, whose taste ran more toward Neil Diamond, decided to press for the historic meeting. “Chapin and I just figured we ought to make this appointment,” recalls Krogh, now a Seattle lawyer, “because one of these guys is the president of the United States and the other is the king of the western world."
Chapin quickly dispatched a memo to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, urging that Nixon meet Elvis. “It would be wrong to push Presley off on the vice president since it will take very little of the president's time,” he wrote, “and it can be extremely beneficial for the president to build some rapport with Presley.” Then he added, “If the president wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with."
In the margin next to that idea, a dubious Haldeman scrawled a skeptical comment: “You must be kidding.” Still, he approved the meeting for that afternoon.
Elvis, meanwhile, had limo'd to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Meeting with Deputy Director John Finlator, he volunteered to fight drugs and offered to donate $5,000 to assist the bureau in that battle. Then he made his pitch for a badge. Finlator declined the donation and refused to part with a shield. “I can't,” he said. “I absolutely can't let you have one."
Near tears, Elvis phoned his hotel to relay the bad news, and Schilling informed him that a White House secretary had just called to say, “The president will see Mr. Presley."
When Elvis arrived at the Oval Office, he was, according to Goldman, the biographer, “high as a kite.” Stoned on speed, scratching at his facial rash and still wearing his purple velvet suit, black cape and dark shades, Elvis came bearing gifts for the president — a Colt .45 pistol and a supply of silver bullets. “The Secret Service,” recalls former White House aide Steve Bull, “viewed that quite dimly.” The gun was whisked away, as were Elvis’s cronies — Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West, who had just flown in from Graceland.
While the Memphis Mafiosi cooled their heels elsewhere, Krogh escorted Elvis into the Oval Office. The King was struck dumb. “For the first 30 seconds, he couldn't say anything,” Krogh recalls. “Then the president walked over and started a conversation.” Immediately Elvis whipped out his collection of police badges and showed them to Nixon. Then he displayed snapshots of his wife and daughter. “It got to be,” Krogh recalls, “like show and tell."
Unfortunately for the American record industry, Nixon's now-famous taping system had not yet been installed. But Krogh's notes of the meeting, written that day for “the president's file,” capture, in perfectly bland bureaucratic prose, the surrealism of the conversation: “Presley indicated that he had been playing Las Vegas and the president indicated that he was aware of how difficult it is to perform in Las Vegas."
Soon Elvis was regaling Nixon with a speed-fueled monologue on the evils of drugs, communist propaganda and the Beatles, who were, he said, anti-American.
Nixon nodded in agreement and observed that it was young drug users who were in the vanguard of the protest movements.
Elvis, a 35-year-old drug user, emotionally assured the president that he was on his side.
And so it went. Elvis kept scratching at his rash and volunteering to fight dope. Nixon kept nodding in agreement and reminding the King of a public figure's need to retain his credibility.
Finally, Elvis popped the question: Could he get a BNDD badge?
Nixon turned to Krogh. “Can I get him a badge?"
Krogh assured him that it could be done. Nixon told him to do it. And Elvis was overcome with joy.
"Presley again told the president how much he supported him,” Krogh wrote, “and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the president and hugged him."
As he headed out, Elvis asked if Nixon would shake hands with his buddies. Nixon agreed. While aides fetched Schilling and West, the president sat down to sign a stack of papers. When he finished, he turned to an aide and asked, “What was this I just signed?” Elvis thought that was hilarious.
When the King's cronies arrived, Nixon punched the burly West playfully on the shoulder. “You've got a couple of big ones here,” he told Elvis. The president gave “the guys” White House cuff links, but that wasn't enough for Elvis: “You know, Mr. President, they've got wives.” So Nixon gave them each a souvenir White House brooch. And then the four men shook hands and posed for the 28 pictures that are now the most requested photographs in the National Archives.
The whole bizarre encounter lasted less than half an hour. At Elvis’s request, it was kept secret, and White House staffers considered the whole thing so trivial that they didn’t even bother to leak it to the press. Thirteen months later, in January 1972, columnist Jack Anderson, tipped off by Finlator, broke the story: “By presidential dictum, Elvis Presley, the swivel-hipped singer, has been issued a federal narcotics badge,” he wrote. “The emotional Presley was so overwhelmed at getting his own genuine gold-plated badge that tears sprang from his eyes and he grabbed President Nixon in a Hollywood bear hug."
Coming at the height of the Vietnam War and at the start of the presidential campaign, Anderson’s revelation caused barely a ripple. It was only years later, after Nixon’s resignation and Elvis’s death, that the meeting took on the status of legend. Today, it seems more and more like a symbol of the absurdity of the era: Here was the most famous entertainer in history, strung out on drugs, coming to the White House to denounce dope and convince the president to give him a narcotics agent’s badge. And the president, soon to be swept out of power on a sea of lies, keeps reminding him of the need to retain credibility.
But neither resignation in disgrace nor a drug-induced death can dim the appeal of these American icons. This spring, Nixon was back yet again, an éminence grise peddling a new book and appearing on “Today” and “Meet the Press” for the first time in 20 years. Meanwhile, Elvis — who never died, according to one recent book, and whose ghost has appeared to many respectable Americans, according to another — showed up, balding but still stoned, on Donald Trump’s yacht in “Doonesbury."
And the pull of their respective myths led thousands of Americans to bombard the National Archives with requests for pictures of their famed encounter. “Many of the requests have come on professional letterheads,” said Richard McNeill of the Nixon project, “doctors, lawyers, registered nurses… ."
Among those lawyers who did not write in for pictures was Bud Krogh. His office was already graced with one of the photos, a shot of himself standing with the president and the King. One day, a young secretary looked at it quizzically. “Who are those guys with you, Bud?” she asked.
Maybe there’s hope for us yet.