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Elvis Meets Nixon

December 21, 2009 by Reader's Connection

Do you know what day this is? Okay, all right, it´s the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year; but you need to get over that. On December 21st, 1970, Elvis Presley had his historic meeting with President Richard Nixon. 

Elvis wanted to be made a “Federal Agent at Large” and to help fight the war on drugs. He wrote Nixon a letter to that effect, on American Airlines stationary–he was in flight at the time, and he was on an airplane, too–and the two men met later that day. The library has only one book devoted to the event, a novel by Jonathan Lowy. Here’s the Library Journal review of Elvis and Nixon

Elvis and Nixon

 This first novel from Lowy is worth reading for its sheer entertainment value. Played against the backdrop of the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, it freely intersperses real and fictitious characters and puts together dozens of actual and manufactured events. At the famous 1970 encounter between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon at the White House, the “King of Rock and Roll” got his coveted Federal Narcotics Agent-at-Large badge, and “Tricky Dicky” received a gold-plated World War II commemorative Colt .45 in return. Readers who are neither fans of the 37th President nor among that presumably vast public that interests itself in the minutest details of the iconic Elvis’s life will still be pleasantly surprised to find themselves drawn into the story. Lowy treats these capricious egotists with consummate skill, and there is little here that might not conceivably have happened. Imagine a surrealistic nightmare, and you’ve got this book.

Publishers Weekly was pretty positive about the book, too, but their review included this note: Elvis hovers just this side of caricature, but is redeemed by a core sweetness. However, the author’s contempt for Nixon and his staff is painfully evident they are presented as automatons of evil.

Integrity : Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White HouseEgil “Bud” Krogh, who was deputy counsel to the President and who did much of the Elvis-handling that day, wrote a 1994 book called The Day Elvis Met Nixon. Our library doesn’t currently own a copy, but the book is owned at several libraries in Indiana, and you can ask for it on Interlibrary Loan. Krogh’s name may sound familiar, because he would later go to jail for crimes committed as one of Nixon’s “plumbers.” The library has his 2007 title Integrity : Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis PresleyIf you just want to sample Krogh’s account of the Elvis visit, try Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. I bought the book when it came out, because I had been moved by the first volume in Guralnick’s biography, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. But the second volume has sat on my shelf, as it may have for many readers, because on page one Elvis has already for the most part stopped making recordings that I enjoy, and because I know he’s eventually going to descend into that level of delusion that takes him to the White House, asking to be a federal agent.

 Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis PresleyBut Careless Love got some splendid reviews, and Guralnick–making use of Krogh’s narrative–does a fine job with the visit to Nixon. A thirty-one year old junior functionary in the administration who had been given some responsibility for the development of a sweeping new drug control policy, [Krogh] had received the Presley letter at about 9:00 a.m. from Dwight Chapin, another young presidential aide who worked directly under Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. Once Krogh had read it, he and Chapin talked . . . Chapin then wrote Haldeman a memo recommending that a meeting with the President be held once Bud had screened Presley. “Presley is very pro the President . . . In addition, if the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with.” Next to the last remark Haldeman had written, “You must be kidding,” but he okayed the request.

Elvis really did give Nixon a commemorative World War II Colt 45. It was chrome-plated, not gold-plated, but novelist Lowy didn’t invent the gun. (Elvis didn’t get to hand it to the President directly–there were security concerns.) It´s also true that Elvis came away with a badge. “The President,” Krogh wrote in his later account of the meeting, “looked a little uncertain at this request. He turned to me and said, ‘Bud,  can we get him a badge?’ I couldn’t read what the President really wanted me to say. ‘Well, sir,’ I answered, ‘if you want to give him a badge, I think we can get him one.’ The President nodded. ‘I’d like to do that. See that he gets one.’ Elvis was smiling triumphantly.”

It’s no surprise that many of the books about Nixon leave out any mention of this encounter,  and no surprise, either, that the Web is more forthcoming.

Digitized copies of Elvis’s American Airlines letter to Nixon and related documents are available, for example, at the National Archives and Records Administration website. Related documents are also available at the National Security Archive at The George Washington University; and at that second site, there’s confirmation of something I’d heard elsewhere:

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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.

I was so disappointed when I opened Google this morning and saw a simple Happy Holidays greeting. How could they not commemorate the Oval Office get-together? Take heart, though. December 21, 2010 will be the 40th anniversary of the meeting, and it will surely be marked with a national holiday.

Season’s Greetings from IMCPL! And have a great Elvis-Nixon!

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