Rock Tails: The King meets The President
There are many innovators of rock and roll but there is only one King. Elvis Presley didn’t just set the bar for the rock star; he created the post. Presley came along at a time of transformation in America. He sparked a craze that would ignite a revolution and forever change poplar expression. In the words of John Lennon, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” August of 2022 marks 45 years since The King’s premature departure at the age of 42. Nearly five decades after his death, Presley still defines rock star and embodies the image that every performer aspires to. But this was not due strictly to his amazing talents. Elvis was the ultimate rock star, on stage and off. In one of the most unbelievable events from a lifetime full of them, Presley pulled the ultimate rock star move.
It was late 1970. The United States was in turmoil and President Richard Nixon presided over a divided nation. The Vietnam conflict was raging as well as extreme disillusion amongst America’s youth. Elvis Presley was not on the top of the charts, but he was already a certified legend. The legendary Dick Clark put it like this, “It’s rare when an artist’s talent can touch an entire generation of people. It’s even rarer when that same influence affects several generations. Elvis made an imprint on the world…unequaled by any other single performer.” Presley was also a proud American. As a U.S. Army veteran, he felt a strong sense of stewardship for his country, and he didn’t like the direction it was going. Naturally, Elvis had a plan and wanted to help. The following excerpts detail firsthand accounts of one of the most bizarre meetings of the twentieth century.
The meeting took place December 21, 1970. Historian Peter Carlson picks up the story from his 2010 article in Smithsonian Magazine. “The story began in Memphis a few days earlier, when Elvis’ father, Vernon, and wife, Priscilla, complained that he’d spent too much on Christmas presents—more than $100,000 for 32 handguns and ten Mercedes-Benzes. Peeved, Elvis drove to the airport and caught the next available flight, which happened to be bound for Washington. He checked into a hotel, then got bored and decided to fly to Los Angeles. ‘Elvis called and asked me to pick him up at the airport,’ recalls Jerry Schilling, Presley’s longtime aide, who dutifully arrived at the Los Angeles airport at 3 a.m. to chauffeur the King to his mansion there.”
“Elvis was traveling with some guns and his collection of police badges, and he decided that what he really wanted was a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs back in Washington. ‘The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,’ Priscilla Presley would write in her memoir, 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.’”
Carlson continues, “After just one day in Los Angeles, Elvis asked Schilling to fly with him back to the capital. ‘He didn’t say why,’ Schilling recalls, ‘but I thought the badge might be part of the reason.’ On the red-eye to Washington, Elvis scribbled a letter to President Nixon. ‘Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out,’ he wrote. All he wanted in return was a federal agent’s badge. ‘I would love to meet you,’ he added, informing Nixon that he’d be staying at the Washington Hotel under the alias Jon Burrows. ‘I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent.’”
“After they landed, Elvis and Schilling took a limo to the White House, and Elvis dropped off his letter at an entrance gate at about 6:30 a.m. The letter was delivered to Nixon aide Bud Krogh, who happened to be an Elvis fan. Krogh loved the idea of a Nixon-Presley summit and persuaded his bosses, including White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, to make it happen. Krogh called the Washington Hotel and set up a meeting through Schilling. Around noon, Elvis arrived at the White House with Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West, who’d just arrived from Memphis. Arrayed in a purple velvet suit with a huge gold belt buckle and amber sunglasses, Elvis came bearing a gift—a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case that Elvis had plucked off the wall of his Los Angeles mansion.”
“The Secret Service confiscated [the gun] before Krogh escorted Elvis—without his entourage—to meet Nixon. ‘When he first walked into the Oval Office, he seemed a little awe-struck,’ Krogh recalls, ‘but he quickly warmed to the situation.’ ‘I’m on your side,’ Elvis told Nixon, adding that he’d been studying the drug culture and Communist brainwashing. Then he asked the president for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. While White House photographer Ollie Atkins snapped photographs, the president and the King shook hands. Then Elvis showed off his police badges. Nixon’s famous taping system had not yet been installed, so the conversation wasn’t recorded. But Krogh took notes. “
After initially dismissing the request as a joke, Bud Krogh put the wheels in motion. Krogh essentially engineered the infamous meeting and was a pretty interesting fellow himself. According to the Richard Nixon Foundation, “Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh, former Deputy Assistant to the President who helped arrange the famous meeting between President Nixon and Elvis Presley. He died on January 18, 2020, at age 80. Krogh joined the White House staff in 1969 as Deputy Counsel and then Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs. He also served as Assistant Director of the Domestic Council Staff, as Executive Director of the Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control, and as liaison officer for the White House to the District of Columbia.”
The bio continues, “Four days before Christmas, in December of 1970, Krogh played a key role in one of the most memorable meetings that the White House has ever seen. Elvis Presley arrived unannounced at the White House with the request of an impromptu meeting with President Nixon. Krogh penned his eyewitness account in the book ‘The Day Elvis Met Nixon,’ and visited the Nixon Library many times over the years to speak to audiences and autograph copies. It was first published in 1994 and has been a top seller in the Nixon Library’s gift shop ever since.” What follows is Bud Krogh’s personal account of actual events. The statement comes via interview conducted in 2000.
“It was December 21, 1970. I got a call from Dwight Chapin, who was one of my best friends on the White House staff. And he said, “The King is here.” And I said, “King who?” I looked at the President’s schedule and said, “There aren’t any kings on the president’s schedule.” He said, “No, not just any two-bit king, the real king. The King of Rock–Elvis. He’s right here in Washington and he wants to see the president.” And I thought that was just an elaborate practical joke. . . . We did those things in those days. I felt that this is just a joke, that this wasn’t true. But he sent over a letter that he said had been written by Elvis Presley, asking to meet with the president to help him with the drug problem. . . .
“In about an hour, through the OMB security office of the Oval Executive Office building I get a call saying that ‘Elvis Presley is here with his two bodyguards.’ And they came down the hall to my office and he really was Elvis Presley, dressed in a purple jumpsuit and a white shirt open to the navel with a big gold chain and thick-rimmed sunglasses. And he came in and I must say, I was very impressed with him. I had been a big fan of his during the 1950s. He proceeded to tell me about how much he felt for his country. He wanted to help the country, to do what he could. Elvis felt he had an obligation because he’d been given so much. He talked about serving in the military, and felt that that was his duty.
“And I thought, ‘Well, you know, this guy seems to be saying the things that that Richard Nixon would like to hear, so let’s see if we can’t set up a meeting.’ So I wrote a memo to the president suggesting some talking points and, and Dwight Chapin wrote a memo to then-Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, to get approval for this meeting. And it came back approved. . . .
“So I called back over to their hotel and said, ‘The meeting’s on. Come on over.’ So he showed up about twelve o’clock. I got a call from the Secret Service telling me we had a little problem, because Elvis had brought a gun in to give the president. A nice Colt automatic with bullets in the display case. I had to go over and explain to them that ‘No guns in the Oval Office’ was standard policy around here. I hoped he’d understand. . . . And he seemed to take that in good grace.
“But anyway, we walked in a half an hour later into the Oval Office and the president got up. It was a little bit awkward at first, because I’m not sure that Elvis really believed that he was there. They had a really weird discussion about a lot of things that had nothing to do with the talking points I had written. Elvis was telling the president how difficult it was to play in Las Vegas. The president said, ‘I understand, Las Vegas is a tough town.’ Then Elvis said, ‘And you know, the Beatles came over here and made a lot of money and said some un-American things.’ And the president looked at me, like, ‘Well, what’s this about the Beatles?’”
“And then the real reason for the trip finally came out as Elvis said, ‘Mr. President, can you get me a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs?’ The president looked and he said, ‘Bud, can we get him a badge?’ And I said, ‘Well, Mr. President, if you want to get him a badge, we can do that.’ He said, ‘Well, get him a badge.’”
“Well, Elvis was so happy about this, he steps around the side of the desk and he goes over and he grabs him. And one of my abiding memories while thinking, ‘This is probably the last thing I’ll ever do in the Oval Office,’ was Elvis Presley hugging Richard Nixon, who’s sort of standing there looking up, thinking, ‘Oh, my God!’ You know? (Laughter) And they parted. And then Elvis asked if he could bring in his bodyguards, to which the president said, ‘Bud, do we have time for that?’ And I thought, ‘You’re this far into it, why not finish it off.’ So, I said, ‘Yes, sir, you’ve got a few more minutes.’”
“So [his body guards] came in and, and the president shook hands with them and told Elvis, ‘You’ve got some big ones here, Elvis.’ And after that, we got him a badge, which Elvis, apparently, carried with him for a long time. It’s on display at Graceland…This was just an honorary badge, but he took it like he’d been given a real agent’s badge. We had to tell him that there were no federal agents-at-large. That’s what he’d asked me about. But that remains one of the more humorous incidents of my time in the White House.” Regarding the famous photograph, Krogh stated, “It’s a jolt seeing them together. Here is the leader of the Western world and the king of rock ‘n’ roll in the same place, and they’re clearly enjoying each other. And you think, ‘How can this be?'”
Rosa Cartagena, a reporter for “The Washingtonian”, lent her opinion about the strange event on its 50th anniversary. She stated, “For decades, people have gravitated toward this special meeting and kept the story of this bizarre conversation alive—see the two Hollywood versions: The Dick Cavett-narrated “mockumentary” Elvis Meets Nixon (1997) and the Michael Shannon-Kevin Spacey match up in Elvis & Nixon (2016). The photograph is still consistently popular. ‘It’s the magnetism of both of the men and their historic-ness that gives the picture such meaning,’ Chapin tells Washingtonian. He still chuckles when he retells the story of that memorable day. Though he didn’t have a chance to meet Elvis 50 years ago in the White House, Chapin is an even bigger fan of the singer now.”
Carlson closed his piece with this: “In 1988, a Chicago newspaper reported that the National Archives was selling photos of the meeting. Within a week, some 8,000 people requested copies, making the pictures the most requested photographs in Archives history.” The meeting between The King and The President had to be one of the most unlikely, impromptu encounters of all time. But it also serves for the quintessential American microcosm. Where else could a poor boy from Tupelo grow up and take a meeting in the highest office in the land without giving any notice. Only in America. But then again, only Elvis. He had the vision, and he had the gumption to execute his plan. He truly is the archetype. As KISS front man Gene Simmons once said, “The word rock star didn’t exist before Elvis Presley.”