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When Nixon Met Elvis

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When Nixon Met Elvis

Pop Culture

When Nixon Met Elvis

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The National Archives houses untold historical treasures: presidential papers, Census records, cultural icons, like Matthew Brady's Civil War photos. But one of the most popular items in the archives is a December 1970 photo of Elvis Presley and President Nixon?

Mr. MIKE HAMILTON (National Archives): Well, they're standing in the Oval Office, and Richard Nixon is looking at Elvis and Elvis is looking at the camera.

ELLIOTT: Mike Hamilton is an audiovisual specialist at the archives.

Mr. HAMILTON: And what's interesting about it is Elvis' apparel. He was wearing his stage clothes when he met the president.

ELLIOTT: There he is, The King of Rock and Roll, decked in velvet with a gold-plated waist, chains hanging down his chest, shaking hands with Richard Nixon. To get the story behind the picture, we visited the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, where the Nixon presidential materials are housed. Archivist John Powers says it all started with a letter Elvis penned to the president, and his goal was to add a federal narcotics badge to his prized collection of police badges.

Mr. JOHN POWERS (National Archives): He was staying at a hotel under the name John Burrows right next to the White House, and he thought he would write this letter. And he walked right over to the White House gate and gave it to a guard, and they brought it forward. And in lightning fashion, Elvis had this meeting just a few hours after writing this letter.

ELLIOTT: Could you read from the letter for us?

Mr. POWERS: Sure. (Reading) `Dear Mr. President: First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley, and I 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 their enemy or, as they call it, "the establishment." I call it America, and I love it.

Sir, I can and will be of service. I have no concerns or motives other than helping the country out. So I do not wish to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more 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. I am glad to help, just so long as it can be kept very private. You can have your staff or whoever call me anytime today, tonight or tomorrow. I'd love to meet you, just to say hello, if you're not too busy. Respectfully, signed Elvis Presley.'

ELLIOTT: And then it looks like there's just, like, this little note with all of his private phone numbers that he's given.

Mr. POWERS: Yes, he gives the president his private numbers in Beverly Hills, in Palm Springs and Memphis, and then he also gives the colonel's private numbers as well on the bottom. You are truly looking at a very unique document. Elvis only wrote the president once. So out of the 42 million pages of documents we have in our collection, this is the only one with Elvis' signature on it.

ELLIOTT: So how did the White House staff react to this somewhat strange request from Elvis Presley?

Mr. POWERS: The request found its way to Dwight Chapin, who was President Nixon's scheduler, who in turn called Bud Krogh, who was a very young staffer on the Domestic Council, and his portfolio, his responsibilities, included drug abuse. And as they sent the approvals forward to the president's chief of staff, the meeting surprisingly was approved.

ELLIOTT: But not without a little commentary, right?

Mr. POWERS: There was a little commentary. The president's scheduler, Dwight Chapin, wrote to H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff. I'll read you just the final line of his memo, which says, `In addition, if the president wants to meet some bright young people outside of the government, Presley might be the perfect one to start with.' And Haldeman, in blue pen, scribbled an aside, `You must be kidding.' But in the fact, for the line where it says, `Approve Presley coming in at the end of open hour,' he signed his initials in blue ink that he approved the meeting.

ELLIOTT: What are some of the other papers that you have here? The talking points maybe?

Mr. POWERS: Well, we have the two-page talking points, what the president should actually talk about, then finally here some suggestions for possibly things that Elvis could do to help the White House...

ELLIOTT: What did they want Elvis to do?

Mr. POWERS: They had suggested that perhaps he could kind of emcee a television special with stars and sing popular songs and interpret them for parents in order to show drug and other anti-establishment themes in rock 'n' roll. He could encourage fellow artists to develop a new rock musical theme called `Get High on Life.' He could record an album with the theme `Get high on life.'

ELLIOTT: Elvis was really into getting this federal narcotics badge. Did that actually happen?

Mr. POWERS: He did. He received a kind of commemorative badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

ELLIOTT: How did he react when the president, you know, agreed to his request?

Mr. POWERS: Well, we don't know verbatim what happened because the taping system was not yet in operation, but we do have notes of the meeting. It just says--the final paragraph--this is a two-page kind of meeting summary. The final paragraph says, `At the conclusion of the meeting, Presley again told the president how much he supported him and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his arm around the president and hugged him.'

ELLIOTT: John Powers is the supervisory archivist with the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives. To see the famous photo and the documents that go with it, visit our Web site, npr.org.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Debbie Elliott has left the building.

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