This iconic December 12, 1970 photo of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon is surreal, but the story behind the meeting is even stranger. By the 70s things were unravelling for Elvis. He was already deep into a deadly drug addiction, and was struggling with his place in the world he had once been on top of. Elvis seemed to be in a bit of a tailspin when he loaded up his gun and decided to do some rare private traveling.
According to his ex-wife Priscilla Presley, a few days before the Nixon meeting, Elvis was in Memphis fighting with her and his dad Vernon over Christmas presents. His family wasn’t happy that he blew $100,000 on 32 handguns and 10 Mercedes-Benzes, so he stormed off on the next flight out of town, which just happened to be D.C.
Elvis wasn’t used to traveling alone, and he immediately got into trouble when they almost didn’t let him on the plane with his gun. Once in D.C., he got agitated when some thugs eyed his gold jewelry during a doughnut purchase. It turned out being alone in a city with nothing but his costume was too much for The King. He immediately went back to L.A. to pick up two things: his pal Jerry, and his World War II Colt 45 revolver from his Hollywood home.
On the flight back to D.C. with Jerry in tow, he continued to act erratically by giving a Vietnam vet all the cash both he and Jerry had, and discussing his concerns for the nation with Senator George Murphy. Inspired by the conversation, Elvis hand-wrote a six-page letter to President Nixon on American Airlines stationary. It’s written from an almost childlike perspective, asserting his love for his country and his desire to obtain proper “credentials” to help fight the drug culture and “hippie elements.” To do the most good, Elvis, who had a vast collection of police badges from all over the country, said he needed to be named a Federal Agent at Large, a position that didn’t even exist.
Dear Mr. President.
First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do NOT consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help The Country out. I have no concern or Motives other than helping the country out.
So I wish not to 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 my communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials. I am on this plane with Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.
Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507. I have two men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.
I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very Private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today, tonight, or tomorrow. I was nominated this coming year one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men. That will be in January 18 in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. I am sending you the short autobiography about myself so you can better understand this approach. I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.
P. S. I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America also.
I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.
The gift, of course, was the gun he took from his L.A. home. As for the badge and title he requested, Priscilla Presley had a bit of insight on motives that went a bit beyond fighting drugs and the “hippie element.” “The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” Priscilla Presley wrote in Elvis and Me. “With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.” Of course, that wasn’t true, but it makes sense that maybe he thought it was.
Who are you when you’re Elvis Presley? It’s incomprehensible. The rest of us have enough trouble with our identities without embodying the roles of gods and goddesses. It’s enough to make you feel like you deserve certain things, it’s a kind of entitlement that pushes the boundaries of human possibility. But, the boundaries are still there. You can be humored by a president, but you will not be a real agent. You can take drugs that make you feel invincible, but these same drugs will shorten your life. You can (several decades ago at least,) bring guns aboard a public airplane, but you can’t curb the anxiety of walking down the street by yourself.
When the flight landed in the early morning, Elvis was ready to hand-deliver his letter right away. Dwight Chapin, special assistant to the president, read the letter, and was excited for the meeting to take place because Nixon had been trying to recruit celebrities to help fight the “war on drugs.” By 12:30 p.m. Elvis, after being allowed to waltz into the White House carrying two guns, is in the same room with Nixon.
They pair talked past their allotted time of five minutes, bonding over simple beginnings and shared sentiments about drugs and promoting America. According to the official record of their meeting, “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England, where they promoted an anti-American theme. ”
“The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also in the vanguard of anti-American protests “. Presley spent most of the rest of the meeting telling Mr Nixon that he wanted to give his name to the administration’s law-and-order campaign “to restore some respect to the flag.”
Nixon okayed for Elvis to get a narcotics badge, and he was given a private tour of the FBI. Instead of spinning this into a P.R. stunt, both men decided to keep this special meeting a secret. It didn’t leak until a year later.
When Elvis passed away in 1977 his vanity status as a federal narc spurred conspiracies theories that he had faked his own death so he could go undercover. It was said The King now lived a quiet life, one he dreamed about, as Jon Burrows, a name he used to check into hotels. There is was supposedly a real man named Jon Burrows, a federal agent who happened to take a flight from Memphis to Buenos Aires, Argentina the day after Elvis died. More and more narratives spiraled out of control. There were groups formed, meetings held, and documentaries made. Elvis can’t be dead. How can Elvis be dead?
Elvis would have been 80 this year, and as the years rage on, there will be less Elvis sightings. The man, the troubled guy who was just trying to cope with his strange life like the rest of us, is gone. Elvis, though, will live forever. As saturated as his image and music is into the fabric of our culture, when you really just sit down and listen or watch him, the magic is fresh and alive. By the time I was growing up, the cult of Elvis had grown so strained and massive that it was too much to like Elvis. His brilliance was obscured by his iconography for me, and a lot of my peers, for a while. Recently, though, I plugged back into him and realized why he had the world in his hands, even if he couldn’t really touch it. It’s no wonder we spin immortality myths around a guy like this.
In 1997 Showtime aired Elvis Meets Nixon, and there’s another feature film about this encounter starring Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon due out in 2016.
Here’s a little taste of that:
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