They were two of the most controversial and consequential figures of the 20th century, transformational figures who helped shape the culture and politics of the United States in the tumultuous ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Elvis Presley helped kickstart the age of rock ‘n’ roll while President Richard Nixon ushered in an era of conservative backlash, making the infamous photo of the two standing together at the White House, taken in December 1970, the subject of curiosity for decades.
And somehow, the true story about how the King and the President came together for that fateful snapshot is even stranger than you’d might expect.
Presley grew up in the conservative South and his music and image were often seen as rebellious
A son of conservative Mississippi and then Memphis, Tennessee, Presley began his career as a rebel of his upbringing and then became something of a reactionary. His political transformation is key to understanding why he wound up seeking out a meeting with conservative Nixon on December 21, 1970. At the time, Nixon was in the midst of his crusade against drugs and demoralization of the counterculture, two policies that Presley professed to support in the fateful letter he wrote to the White House. Those stances would have surprised people who knew him just 15 years earlier.
Presley grew up listening to and loving country tunes as well as gospel, soul and the blues. Between the flashy, dynamic performances by the vocally transcendent gospel singers at church and the time he spent deep in the heart of the Memphis blues scene, he’d spent years steeped in the Black community. While his music and spotlight it brought made him beloved in the Black community, it initially rendered him an enemy of the white establishment.
In the 1950s, during Presley's rise, Nixon was the vice president, serving under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As he became more famous, conservative white Americans were scandalized by Presley’s music and his gyrating hips, which both elicited squeals from raucous teenage girls mesmerized nationwide. Condemnation came from far and wide after he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, perhaps because conservatives knew he was ushering in a revolution.
"Elvis startled America and the news media in 1956, and press coverage was often scathing and alarmist,” Ken Paulson, who ran the Washington, D.C.-based Newseum when it ran a Presley-focused exhibition, said in 2010. “The press of the 1950s viewed themselves as arbiters of American values. The press criticism was very harsh, very negative.”
Presley rarely got explicitly political — it was rare for musicians to do so back then — but reportedly declared that he’d be supporting Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 election. “I'm strictly for Stevenson,” he told reporters in Los Angeles. “I don't dig the intellectual bit, but I'm telling you, man, he knows the most.” Stevenson twice ran against Eisenhower, and by extension, Nixon.
PHOTOS: Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon's 1970 White House Meeting
By the 1960s, Presley had gone through a public and private transformation
Presley was drafted into the military in 1958. He served for two years before returning to a country that was on the brink of change. Nixon disappeared around the same time, having lost his first bid for the presidency in 1960 to John F. Kennedy before falling short in the California gubernatorial election of 1962.
Presley spent much of the ‘60s working in Hollywood, while Nixon lived and worked in New York. The former vice president seized on the backlash to the civil rights reforms passed under Lyndon B. Johnson and the fracturing of the Democratic Party in a surprise second bid for the White House in 1968. This time, he was successful, bringing out what he termed the “silent majority” of scared white suburbanites who craved law and order.
By this point, Presley had begun to identify with this cohort. As he worked on movies, rock music had begun to pass him by, as Bob Dylan introduced protest folk into the genre, The Beatles and the British Wave used the Sullivan catapult to rocket to fame, and the counterculture took root with young people across the nation. By comparison, Presley seemed old and dated; his movies were seen as corny and his ballads increasingly irrelevant. When he made his own big comeback in 1968 with a televised special, his audience was more parents than their screaming teenagers.
“He’s older, and he’s understanding responsibilities and he’s seeing the counterculture that’s a byproduct of something that maybe he didn’t totally start, but he was certainly a leader,” his friend Jerry Schilling said in a 2016 interview, explaining Presley’s transformation. “Now it’s starting to promote things that he didn’t like, professionally and publicly. Let’s face it, the music was drug-influenced. He did not like seeing people walk on the stage with torn jeans back then. He thought if you’re doing a show, you should look like a showman. He came from a different time. He was a pioneer.”
Presley had always been fascinated with police officers, from the time he was a child up through his final years at Graceland. In the 1960s, he spent lots of time with the police in Memphis, donating to the police department and enjoying endless hours at the station. “I don’t care where he was, whenever he saw the police, Elvis always stopped and talked to them,” a patrolman named Jim Hammers once said. ”He would drive up beside them in the street and get them to pull over. He would spend hours at a time talking with them in different places.”
He also collected police badges from around the country during his travels and was a firearm fanatic, owning a massive collection of guns and rifles. In fact, it was these twin obsessions that wound up driving Presley to request a meeting with Nixon.
Presley wrote Nixon a letter asking to be made a 'federal agent at large'
Flush with more money than anyone could ever need, Presley spent lavishly, including on Christmas presents for his family. In fact, his Christmas shopping bill in 1970 topped $100,000 thanks to an order of 32 handguns and 10 Mercedes-Benzes, an extravagant outlay that earned him criticism from his parents. Angry at the scolding, he flew to Washington, D.C. and then Los Angeles, where he had a mansion. Then it was back to Washington a day later, with Schilling in tow.
Presley was also carrying some of his beloved police badges and guns — flying was different back then — and had decided that he wanted to add one from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to his collection.
"The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him," his former wife Priscilla Presley would later write in her memoir. "With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished."
On his flight back to Washington, Presley wrote a six-page letter to Nixon, requesting to be made a "federal agent at large" and reasoning that the political left — “drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers,” to be specific — trusted him enough that he could infiltrate their ranks. He also said that he’d done an “in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing,” which would make him particularly useful in his covert war against these radical elements.
Nixon never got the letter — instead, it went to one of the president’s aides, Egil "Bud" Krogh, who was a big fan of the King. It was through his handiwork and persuasion campaign that the meeting wound up actually happening.
Presley gifted Nixon with a gun and Nixon gifted Presley with a narc badge
When he showed up at the White House, Presley was toting a special engraved Colt .45 pistol as a gift for the president, who seemed far more grateful to receive the weapon than Presley’s parents. They spoke about their shared obsessions, including drugs and protestors, and in notes Kough took by hand during the meeting, Presley said that he “thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit.” (John Lennon, it should be said, was a fanatical Presley fan as a kid and always cited him as a primary inspiration.)
Kough noted that the meeting was somewhat overwhelming for the rock star. “Presley indicated to the President in a very emotional manner that he was ‘on your side,’” the aide recorded in his write-up. “Presley kept repeating that he wanted to be helpful, that he wanted to restore some respect for the flag which was being lost.”
Presley was able to make his request for a narc badge and Nixon quickly granted his wish. There was a bit of a mix-up there — the badge was an honorary one, but Presley didn’t pick up on that part. He liked to patrol the streets of Memphis and pop a blue siren on top of his car to speed toward accidents to offer his help.
A few years later, another Nixon would begin to award him a series of badges. Shelby County Sheriff Roy Nixon indulged the rock star’s fantasies, culminating with a Chief Deputy badge in 1976.