Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley: Two suspicious minds
The secret meeting between the King of Rock and Roll and the American President has been made into a film. Paul Whitington delves into a bizarre tale of Seventies fame and paranoia
In 1988, the American National Archives released for sale a photo so bizarre most people thought it had been faked. The shot showed former US President Richard Nixon shaking the hand of Elvis Presley with apparent enthusiasm. However, it was no fake and was soon selling like hot cakes, for understandable reasons
For a start, the image was poignant. It had been taken at the White House way back in 1970, but at the time of its release, Elvis had been dead for a decade, while an elderly Nixon clung to the shadows, shorn of the political respectability he craved by Watergate and its aftermath.
Then there was the fact they looked hilariously incongruous beside each other. Nixon, grey and thinly smiling, seems the epitome of a starchy Washington operator, while Elvis, with his cape, high collars, velvet bell-bottoms and giant belt buckle, looks like a visiting potentate.
Two less likely bedfellows would have been hard to imagine and yet the two men had more in common than you might suppose, as a witty new film illustrates.
Elvis & Nixon tells the story of how Presley ended up in the Oval Office and what on earth he was up to. And while Michael Shannon might not sound like the obvious choice to play the King, he does a brilliant job by underplaying the Presley tics beloved of Elvis impersonators.
Kevin Spacey has a knack for playing presidents, but again avoids mere impersonation in his portrayal of Nixon, instead finding his character through his mannerisms - that obtuse, jutting head, those hunched and worrying shoulders.
The film evokes its period well, but in the end can only guess as to what Presley and the President talked about because in 1970, Nixon hadn't started bugging his own office yet.
We do have some eyewitness evidence to go on, however: Nixon's aide, Egil Krogh, wrote a book about the encounter and Elvis's friend Jerry Schilling also mentioned it in his memoir. This film is based, in large part, on their testimonies. It opens with a bizarre incident which, according to Schilling, actually happened.
In December of 1970, Elvis is watching television in Graceland, or rather a bank of TVs all tuned to different stations, showing race riots, drug arrests and footage of the carnage in Vietnam. Ever the patriot, Elvis is disgusted by the chaos in which his nation seems mired and decides to act.
First, he shoots a hole in one of the TV sets, then he boards a flight for Los Angeles. There, he finds his old friend Schilling and insists he drop everything and accompany him to Washington on a top-secret mission. Elvis has decided he wants to meet the president and offer his assistance in the fight against the nation's foes.
To put things in context, Elvis Aaron Presley was 35 at this point. While the glory days of the Fifties were well behind him, he'd bounced back in style two years previously with the 1968 Comeback TV special and was now a headline act in Vegas. He was still probably the most famous person on the planet, a situation with which he'd never been entirely comfortable.
Swindled by his manager and soon to be estranged from his young wife Priscilla, Elvis was becoming a lonely and isolated man, at odds with reality and prone to the paranoia and delusion that would eventually overwhelm him. He was also becoming seriously addicted to prescription medication, but that didn't stop him ranting to his entourage about the evils of the drug culture that he had now decided to do something about.
You see, in seeking an audience with Nixon, the singer hoped he would be granted the status of special agent with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, complete with badge, of course - badges were very important to him. Elvis's motivation for this may have been partly altruistic: he was a patriot and had insisted on being treated as an ordinary soldier while doing his national service.
However, his wife Priscilla suspected a baser motive. "The narc badge," she later wrote in her memoir, "represented some kind of ultimate power to him. With the federal narcotics badge, he (believed he) could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished." Presley habitually used a bewildering array of prescription drugs and painkillers, and didn't want anyone telling him not to.
Elvis also loved guns. He wore a pistol on a shoulder strap most of the time, and usually had another one hidden under his sock. The right to bear arms was very important to Elvis - who'd received many death threats - and the badge would allow him to do so wherever he went.
On an early-morning flight to Washington with the doggedly faithful Schilling, Presley wrote a note to Nixon: "Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out ... I would love to meet you ... I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent."
Initially, however, Elvis's plan seemed doomed. After he and Schilling dropped his note off at the White House gate, the missive was opened by Nixon's aides, who thought it was a fake. Informed of Presley's desire to meet him, Nixon was grandly dismissive: he hated rock 'n' roll and assumed Elvis was just another counter-culture degenerate.
But one of his aides, Bud Krogh, was an Elvis fan and when he pointed out that meeting the singer could do wonders for Nixon's image with voters, especially southern ones, the president softened. Elvis was about to enter the building.
He did so with his customary flourish, wearing a magnificent purple suit and amber shades, and carrying an antique Colt 45 pistol that he intended to present to Nixon as a gift. He was quickly divested of that, as well as the other two guns he was carrying, before being ushered into the Oval Office.
According to Krogh, Elvis was initially "a little awe-struck". But he quickly regained his regal poise and began showing a no-doubt-bemused Nixon his impressive collection of police badges and, according to the film, also demonstrated some karate moves.
But the two men quickly found common ground in their distrust of communism, their shared dislike of The Beatles and the growing drug craze. Elvis then told the president that he'd been "studying the drug culture", and might be of service as a Federal secret agent.
"Can we get him a badge?" Nixon then asked Krogh. He was the president, of course he could.
When Nixon ordered that it be done, a delighted Elvis put his arm around the president and hugged him. Nixon was a cold fish and was apparently visibly shocked by this breach of protocol. But he warmed to Elvis, and the two men got on surprisingly well.
However, perhaps it wasn't all that surprising. After all, both had overcome real poverty and difficult childhoods to excel in their chosen fields. They both believed in the supremacy of their nation and though their definitions of them might differ slightly, were both attached to traditional American values. So a meeting that might have been disastrous went off surprisingly well, though at Elvis's insistence it was kept secret.
The King was always proud of having got to meet the president and Nixon would later remember the singer with real affection.
In an interview given in 1990, just four years before his death, he perceptively recalled that for all his flamboyance, Elvis was profoundly shy.
He also defended Elvis on the matter of drugs and pointed out that he'd only taken prescription drugs, not illegal ones.
"I think," concluded the former commander in chief, "that he was a very sincere and decent man."