Mid-December, 1970. It's almost Christmas in Memphis, Tennessee — hometown of the King of Rock 'n' Roll himself, Elvis Presley.
After an argument with his father, Vernon, and wife, Priscilla, over his excessive holiday spending, Elvis impulsively drove to the airport and hopped on the next available flight headed to the nation's capital, Washington, DC.
Just two days later, this trip would lead to the one of the most unlikely meetings in both political and musical history, and one of the most sought-after photographs in U.S. history.
Elvis was on the heels of a successful comeback tour in 1968, aptly titled Elvis' '68 Comeback Special, and a career and creative resurgence that included the recent release of the critically acclaimed From Elvis to Memphis and sold-out live engagements at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. However, the singer's passions were beginning to lean towards the political, with a vocal contempt for hippies, drug culture and the counterculture in general.
After landing in Washington, Elvis checked into a hotel, but quickly grew bored and decided to fly to his home in Los Angeles.
Jerry Schilling, Elvis' longtime friend and aide, arrived at the airport at 3 a.m. to drive the legend to his L.A. mansion. This trip, however, would last even shorter than the one to Washington.
Elvis was traveling with guns and his collection of police badges at the time, and inspiration struck. He decided, then and there, that he needed 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 wrote in her 1985 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."
After only one day in Los Angeles, Elvis and Schilling made their way back to the capital.
On the red-eye back to Washington, Elvis jotted down a letter to then-President Nixon on five American Airlines sheets of paper:
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 3 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 Se. George Murphy and We have been discussing the problems that our Country is faced with.
So I am Staying at the Washington hotel Room 505-506-507. I have 2 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 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 to busy. (sic)
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 also 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.
Immediately after landing, Elvis and Schilling took a limo to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At approximately 6:45 a.m., Elvis proudly presented his letter to security at an entrance gate to the White House.
After checking into the Washington Hotel, Elvis arrived at the offices of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He acquired a meeting with a deputy director, but failed to secure a bureau badge.
Meanwhile, Nixon aide Egil "Bud" Krogh was presented with the handwritten letter. In a twist of fate, Krogh was an avid Elvis fan. He quickly persuaded his bosses, including White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, to make the meeting happen. Once it was approved, he called Schilling at the hotel to set up a time to meet.
Nixon's administration saw the meeting as a smart political move, believing Elvis could send a positive message to young people, and make the Republican president appear more "hip."
Around noon that same day, on Monday, December 21, 1970, sporting a crushed purple velvet suit with a massive gold belt buckle and aviator sunglasses, Elvis was officially in the building. He arrived at the North West gate of the White House alongside Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West, who had just flown in from Memphis.
Elvis came bearing a gift for President Nixon — a Second World War Colt .45 pistol mounted in a wooden display case — which Secret Service quickly confiscated. He was then escorted alone, sans Schilling or West, into the heart of the White House.
"When [Elvis] first walked into the Oval Office, he seemed a little awe-struck," Krogh recalled in his memoir, The Day Elvis Met Nixon, "but he quickly warmed to the situation."
Nixon and Elvis greeted one another, shook hands, and Elvis showed off his police badges, all while White House photographer Ollie Atkins was snapping the photographs that would become the most requested in the history of the U.S. National Archives.
Nixon's infamous Sony TC-800B open-reel tape recorders weren't yet installed, so their conversation wasn't recorded, but Krogh took notes. Elvis emphatically stated that The Beatles, whose songs he had recently begun performing, were symbols of anti-Americanism and drug abuse in popular culture.
"The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest," wrote Krogh.
"I'm on your side," Elvis agreed with the fervent anti-Communist, anti-counterculture Nixon, informing him of his own studies of drug culture and Communist brainwashing.
He then asked the President for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Without hesitation, Nixon agreed. Elated, Elvis hugged the president, much to everyone's surprise.
There was a deep irony to this entire interaction, given the singer's (now well-documented and ultimately tragic) appetite for Quaaludes, Dexedrine, Tuinal, Demerol, Diluadid and the like.
Before he left, Elvis asked that Nixon meet Schilling and West. Nixon was jovial and playful with the two men, and gave them White House cuff links and White House brooches for their wives.
Krogh then took Elvis to lunch at the White House Mess, after which he received his prized narc badge.
The meeting was kept secret at Elvis' request until a year later, when columnist Jack Anderson broke the story. But it wasn't the national news story that he had hoped — time had passed and people no longer cared.
Almost two decades later, in 1988, long after Nixon resigned from the presidency and Elvis had died of a drug overdose, a newspaper reported that the National Archives were selling photos of the meeting. Within a week, over 8,000 people requested copies, more than any other photo in the Archives history — to this very day.
There's no question as to why the photos are so captivating. But National Archives' director of retail, Chris Derderian probably described it best: "There's this staid president with this rock 'n' roll figure. It's a powerful image." ~Shelby Morton