The Day Nixon Met the King

Thirty-nine years ago today, the White House played host to a most unusual meeting. Hip-thrusting idol Elvis Presley walked up to the northwest gate of the mansion with a six-page letter to the president scribbled on American Airlines stationary. His reason for being there was simple: to seek an audience with President Nixon to help in the government's battle against teenage drug abuse.

The word that Presley had been at the gate eventually made it to Nixon, who invited Presley into the White House seeing an opportunity for the musician to do a civic duty and be the “voice of reason” for teenagers considering drug use. But the meeting gave some senior staff pause, wary of how it would look to invite a celebrity into the West Wing. On the memo approving the meeting, Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in the margin “you must be kidding.” Haldeman had qualms with a portion of the memo that stated, “the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the Government, [and] Presley might be a perfect one to start with.”

Staff members carefully briefed Nixon for the encounter, which happened on Dec. 21, 1970, reminding him to name drop musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin who had recently succumbed to drug-related deaths. During the actual conversation, Presley briefly reminisced about his upbringing in rural Tennessee, and said he sought to undo the anti-American sentiment he felt the Beatles had encouraged. When discussing how Elvis might put his brand to use, Nixon encouraged the musician to record an album with the theme “Get High on Life.”

But Presley had some ideas of his own. His scribbled letter, kept by the National Security Archive and the U.S. National Archives, reveals the scattered and spontaneous personality of an iconic musician. His pitch was straight forward. He painted himself as a pop-culture figure that had engaged in extensive studies on drug abuse and communist brainwashing techniques and he knew how to navigate the dark worlds of both. There would be no glossy photo shoots or PSA recordings─nothing suggesting he was working on behalf of the establishment. Instead, he would use unique access he had to the minds of young people that Nixon, or anyone else in the government for that matter, didn't. To up his qualifications, Elvis touted that he had just been nominated one of America’s "Ten Most Outstanding Young Men." And then came the ask. He’d be happy to lend his services, he explained, for the very small price of honorary “federal credentials.”

The meeting ended in a way no commander in chief would expect─with a hug. Presley even gifted the president with a commemorative World War II Colt .45 pistol and family photographs. Nixon eventually honored Presley’s request, and gave the rock-and-roll sensation an honorary title as federal agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

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