August 10th, 2008 20:40 EST
History Cafe - Episode 4: The King Meets the Chief
*Audio by Kristin Marzec
In the early hours of December 21, 1970, a limousine approached the White House main gate. When the limousine stopped, a tinted car window slowly moved down. A hand emerged from the inside and a familiar voice asked the flabbergasted guard to come closer. "Give this letter to Mr. President," the guard was ordered. Seconds later the limousine was gone.
"Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out," read the letter. "I wish not be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through communication with people of all ages.... I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communism brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing.... I would love to meet you just to say hello if you`re not too busy."
"Who wants to meet me?!" President Nixon could not contain his surprise. He was used to the fact that he had to change his tightly planned daily schedule because some senator or foreign diplomat demanded an instant session but the man asking for a meeting fell into neither category. The president held six tightly written pages of American Airlines headed paper signed by Elvis Presley. "Tell him I will see him," said Nixon with a wide grin on his face.
The year 1970 was not particularly good for Elvis. In the opinion of many, the king had the best years behind him and, although his concerts still gathered thousands of devoted fans, the American public looked for something new. Besides, death threats that he had recently received in great numbers made him paranoid - from now on Presley would not part with his Colt .45 even during his concerts. In December 1970, he arrived in Washington, DC, to "get the credentials of a federal agent."
The story that the king wanted to meet with Nixon quickly spread through the White House. Dwight L. Chapin, a special assistant to the president, sent a memo to H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff. "As you are aware," read the memo, "Presley showed up here this morning and has requested an appointment with the President." Chapin concluded that the pictures of Nixon shaking hands with Elvis, still the icon for millions of Americans, would be a great asset. "If the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the Government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with."
Chapin`s idea caught on and a session was set for 12:30. The president was lectured by his staff 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 in bringing a more positive attitude to young people throughout the country." In the oval office, apart from Nixon and Presley, was Bud Krogh, a lawyer responsible for the administration`s narcotics policy. Unlike other private talks, a special television crew and photographers were let in to record this unusual meeting.
Elvis was wearing dark velvet trousers and a waist-long cape. His white silk shirt was wide open, revealing much of his chest, which soon became the king`s unforgettable trademark. This extravagant outfit was matched by the gift that Presley presented to Nixon: a chrome-plated Colt .45 with a set of silver bullets. Unfortunately, Secret Service agents had confiscated the gun before the president even had a chance to see it.
What the president did see were law enforcement paraphernalia that the king had gathered during his tours across America. Apart from pictures and letters signed by police chiefs, Elvis was particularly proud of his police badges from California, Colorado, and Tennessee - his home state. Nixon, visibly touched by Presley`s ardent patriotism, promised to get him a special badge of a federal agent while asking his guest what had brought him to the capital city.
Presley went straight to the point. "The Beatles, I think, are kind of anti-American," he began his confidential report. "They came over here. Made a lot of money. And then went back to England. And they said some anti-American stuff when they got back." Nixon, who couldn`t care less about the Beatles, tried to steer the conversation towards the planned topic of narcotics. "I appreciate your offer to help us with the drug problem," started the president, but Elvis went on. "I can go right into a group of hippies and young people and be accepted."
According to Bud Krogh, Elvis thought Nixon an extraordinary man. "Presley again told the President how much he supported him, and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the President and hugged him," Krogh reported in his post-meeting memorandum. "Presley indicated to the President in a very emotional manner that he was `on your side.`" Also in his morning letter, Presley wrote Nixon: "I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America."
These warm feelings were reciprocated by Nixon. A week after the king`s visit, Nixon wrote Presley a personal letter in which he thanked him for the gifts and advice. "It was a pleasure to meet you in my office recently," read the letter addressed to "Dear Mr. Presley!" It went on: "You were particularly kind to remember me with this impressive gift [the Colt pistol], as well as your family photographs, and I am delighted to have them for my collection of special mementos. Wish my best wishes to you, Mrs. Presley, and to your daughter, Lisa, for a happy and peaceful 1971."
One year later, Richard M. Nixon won the presidential election with over 60 percent of the popular vote, the best result in decades. Elvis Presley again won the hearts and minds of Americans with his 1972 single, "Burning Love." It was his last recording to hit the top ten in the US charts. On August 9, 1974, Nixon stepped down as president, with H.R. Haldeman, Dwight L. Chapin, and Bud Krogh, among others, in prison for their part in the Watergate scandal. Almost exactly three years later, Elvis Presley was found dead in his Graceland mansion.
That`s all for this week edition of History Cafe! Stay in touch and remember that you make history every day!
NOTE: The quotes we used writing this article come from the National Security Council archives. Some were also borrowed from Richard Reeves`s acclaimed biography of Richard Nixon, titled "President Nixon." We also used the fragments of Elvis Presley`s "Amazing Grace," as it appears on the "He Touched Me" album.
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