The story behind the 1970 meeting between Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley at the White House is bizarre, yet compelling. And nearly 50 years later, the tale will finally be told in a major Hollywood motion picture opening this weekend (Apr. 22). "Elvis & Nixon" stars Kevin Spacey as the president and Michael Shannon as the King in a comedic retelling of this American culture clash, which ended with Elvis becoming a secret agent in the War on Drugs.
Here's the backstory about the historic meeting. In December 1970, Elvis wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon while flying to Washington, D.C. It was a statement of his views on America, which he claimed was under siege from the counterculture of the 60s.
Elvis wanted to help, so he asked to be enlisted as a secret agent in the war on drugs. In the pitch, Elvis told the president that his acceptance in the counterculture could help bring it down.
Here's how Presley introduced himself and his political stance:
I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. I talked to Vice President [Spiro] Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS [ Students for a Democratic Society], 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.
Then he proposed his own sit-in, telling the president that he would stay in D.C. until he got his credentials as an honorary narcotics officer:
I will be here for as long as long as [sic] 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.
National Archives / archives.gov
The King meets the President
After landing in the capital, Elvis hand-delivered his letter to a perplexed staff at the White House. But an aide named Egil Krogh, who was also an Elvis fan, persuaded his colleagues to set up a meeting between the president meet the King of Rock and Roll.
On Dec. 21, Presley was brought into the Oval Office, where he again asked for (and later received) his honorary status as a law enforcer. According to Krogh, Elvis also showed Nixon his collection of police badges. And he trash-talked some rivals, telling the president that The Beatles promoted anti-Americanism in the world.
Then they posed for one of the most bizarre photos in White House history:
Elvis' motives: prank, scheme or crusade?
There are a number of competing theories about Elvis' motives for the meeting. Krogh thinks that the administration was had. Elvis, an avid collector of law enforcement paraphernalia, wrote the letter and arranged the meeting because he wanted to add the narcotics credentials to his collection:
"Oh, man, we were set up! But it was fun," Krogh told The Daily Mail years later. "He said all the right words about trying to do the right thing, and I took him at his word, but I think he clearly wanted to get a badge and he knew the only way he was going to get it."
But Priscilla Presley has a couple other theories. In her 1986 memoir Elvis and Me, the King's ex-wife claimed that Elvis' ulterior motives went beyond pranking Nixon: "With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished."
Elvis' addiction to prescription drugs would later lead to his death in 1977.
However, Priscilla later claimed that Elvis was sincere in his anti-drug crusade. And his admiration for J. Edgar Hoover could back that up. If "Elvis & Nixon" becomes a hit, maybe Shannon and Hoover impersonator Leonardo DiCaprio will sign onto a sequel about Elvis' visit to FBI headquarters.
banner image: John Booty / Flickr