WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the sun rose on December 21, 1970, one of the most unlikely and charmingly bizarre encounters between towering American icons went down in the Oval Office at the White House: Elvis Presley, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” met President Richard M. “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
The strange journey commenced a day earlier when Presley, annoyed by his father Vernon carping about The King spending more than $100 grand on Christmas presents, hopped the first flight out of Memphis, in advance of the holiday. After heading toward his home in Los Angeles, Presley decided instead to fly back across country. On a redeye flight to Washington, D.C., then, Presley met California Senator George Murphy.Elvis explained to Murphy that, in his numerous travels, many local law-enforcement agents granted him honorary badges — and he’d sure like to score one on a federal level.
The King further told the Senator that anti-American drug culture upset him, and that he’d specifically like to pick up a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND), the government’s forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Murphy advised Presley to reach out directly to the man in charge: President Richard Milhous Nixon. Presley then grabbed some American Airlines stationery and hand wrote a letter to the president. Below is the text, with all its spelling and grammatical, uh, license-taking intact:
“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 will be here for as long 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 would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.
By badmouthing Black Panthers, communist brainwashing, and “hippie elements,” the King was clearly speaking the president’s language. Presley then de-boarded the plane and personally delivered his correspondence to the White House. Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh — a major Elvis fan — happily received it and set up a meeting posthaste.
In December 1970, it was good to be Elvis Presley — at least on the surface. He had reignited his mega-stardom with a comeback TV special in 1968 and, from there, he stormed Las Vegas as the undisputed new ruler of the Strip. Alas, he was also sliding fast into the prescription pill addiction that, seven years and who-knows-how-many-pounds later, would kill him.On top of that, Elvis regularly traveled with highly questionable amounts of drugs and firearms, so he banked on the notion that also carrying around a cache of police badges would insulate him against legal hassles. Thus, he hoped the tin star from the BNND would serve as a worldwide ticket-to-ride. As ex-wife Priscilla Presley put it in Elvis & Me, her 1986 memoir:
“The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him. With the badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”
Egil Krogh met Presley and escorted him to the Oval Office. Krogh admits to being immediately starstruck, in part, no doubt, to The King’s resplendent purple velvet jumpsuit, flowing cape, gold belt, wraparound sunglasses, and sparkling medallion.
Upon entering the Oval Office, Presley, in turn, seemed a bit starstruck. Nixon greeted him as warmly as Nixon possibly could. Presley announced he had brought the president a gift of a vintage World War II pistol. Secret Service agents swiftly decided it best to hang on to the weapon until later.Presley then laid out his array of law-enforcement badges and, again, spoke to Nixon in terms that sounded like music to Tricky Dick’s ears. According to Krogh’s White House log official account:
“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 those in the vanguard of anti-American protest. Violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.”
From there, Presley told Nixon in no uncertain terms, “I’m on your side.”
After posing for their famous handshake photo, Presley dropped some serious hints that he’d love to add “federal credentials” to his collection. Nixon opened his desk drawer, fished around through “the cufflinks and the paperweights and the golf balls” and then asked Krogh, “Bud, can we get him a badge?”Krogh said he could, and dashed off to get a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs star. Upon presenting it to Presley, Krogh recalled:
“This was just an honorary badge, but he took it like he’d been given a real agent’s badge. There were no federal agents-at-large.”
Presley kept the BNND badge on his person until August 16, 1977, the day he fatally succumbed to ongoing, epic abuse of — indeed — narcotics and dangerous drugs. Since then, the badge and ID card have been on display at Graceland, Presley’s home-turned-museum.
The Elvis-meets-Nixon photo is the single most requested image from the National Archive. It far outpaces more conventional fare like pictures of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
To date, two feature films have been made about the encounter. The docu-comedy Elvis Meets Nixon (1997), costars Rick Peters as Presley and Bob Gunton as Nixon. It’s narrated by Dick Cavett and was made by Allan Arkush, director of the Ramones classic, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979).
Elvis & Nixon (2012) costars Michael Shannon as The King and Kevin Spacey as the president. Colin Hanks plays Egil Krogh.
Egil “Bud” Krogh, who later did time for his part in the Watergate break-in, remembers the whole thing wistfully. Years later, he said:
“[Elvis] said all the right words about trying to do the right thing. But I think he clearly wanted to get a badge, and he knew the only way he was going to get it. Oh man, we were set up! But it was fun.”
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Main photo: Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley [National Archives]