Believe it or not, one of the most popular photos ever taken of Elvis Presley is not one of him performing, rather it is the one of him and Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. Both men were at the top of their careers and reaching the height of their popularity, and yet a meeting between the two seemed to be unfathomable because in what world would “The King” and The President be hanging out?
When the impromptu meeting occurred on December 21, 1970, Elvis was in the middle of a successful comeback tour, and Nixon (who was still a few years away from his dealing at Watergate) was riding a wave of popularity, vowing to pull American troops out of Vietnam and desegregate schools.
In reality, the story of why Elvis wanted to meet Nixon started a few days earlier. Elvis, who had been traveling with some guns and a collection of police badges, decided that he really wanted a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to add to his police badge collection. According to his wife, Priscilla Presley, “in Elvis’s mind, that badge would give him the right to carry any prescribed drug he had on his person. With the Federal Narcotics badge, he could legally enter any country wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.
Elvis had flown to Los Angeles, but after spending only a day there, he hopped on a red-eye to Washington in hopes of meeting Nixon. During this flight, Elvis penned a note on American Airlines stationery to be given to Nixon. Once his flight landed, Elvis directed his limo to Pennsylvania Ave and handed the letter to Secret Service guards.
The hand-delivered five-page letter requested a meeting with Nixon. Elvis wrote to Nixon that he wanted to “be of any service that I can to help the country out. I have no concern or motives other than helping the country out.” He included his room and phone number at the Hotel Washington where he was staying under the alias “Jon Burrows.” He ended the letter with a polite request- “I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.”
After leaving the letter with the Secret Service, Elvis checked into the Hotel Washington and was on his way to meet the deputy director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in hopes of obtaining the badge he so badly wanted for his collection. In the meantime, Elvis’s letter had been delivered to Nixon’s aide Egil “Bud” Krogh, who thought a Nixon-Presley meeting would be iconic.
Nixon’s aids thought it would be a great idea for the President to meet the king of rock and roll, but interestingly enough so did Nixon himself. According to Dwight Chapin, who served as appointed secretary to Richard Nixon, the President never stopped making political calculations. Nixon genuinely wanted to be able to connect with younger Americans and thought that perhaps meeting Elvis Presley could help with this.
Around noon on December 21, 1970, Elvis arrived at the White House with a Colt .45 pistol intended to be a gift for President Nixon (although this gift was quickly confiscated). Before Elvis officially met the President, Jerry Schilling, who was a close friend of Elvis, recalled there being a bit of an interrogation. Elvis was asked questions including “why do you want to meet the President? What do you want to talk about?”
Unfortunately for curious Americans everywhere, the conversation between Nixon and Presley was not recorded. Luckily, White House staffer Bud Krogh jotted down some notes about the meeting and later revealed them. Elvis had brought with him photos of his family to show Nixon as well as his collection of police badges that he was so hoping to add to.
Conversations ranged from Communism, (which Elvis told Nixon he had studied) to the dragging down the Beatles (Elvis wasn’t happy with some of their statements on America), to hippie drug culture (Elvis thought that prescription drugs and illegal drugs fell into separate categories). All in all, Elvis just seemed passionate about helping out his country. He kept repeating to Nixon that he wanted to “be helpful,” and “that he wanted to restore some respect for the flag which was being lost.”
Nixon seemed to be very receptive to everything that Elvis was saying, and thought the best course of action for Elvis to reach young people was by continuing to sing rather than trying to bring politics into his concerts. The President advised Elvis that the best way for him to keep his credibility with his young people was by entertaining them. In this way, he would make a much more positive impact.
About halfway through the meeting, Elvis made two requests to Nixon. First, he suggested that the meeting between the two of them remain a secret, as their fan bases might not understand the purpose of their meeting. The second request was for an official badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which Elvis told the President could help legitimize his efforts on behalf of drug prevention. Nixon quickly agreed to both of Presley’s requests. Elvis, who was either so excited about his new badge, or so overcome with emotion about the meeting, threw his arms around Nixon and embraced him in a hug.
In January 1972, the story of the Nixon-Presley meeting leaked, but at the time, few people seemed to really care about the meeting. In 1988, almost 15 years after Nixon resigned from office and over a decade after Presley’s passing, a Chicago newspaper reported that the National Archives was selling photos from this iconic meet and greet. Within a week of this announcement nearly 8000 people had requested copies, making the pictures the most requested photographs in National Archives history.