The Day Nixon Met Elvis
John William Tuohy
On Saturday, December 19, 1970, Elvis Presley, the quickly fading king of Rock and Roll had an ugly confrontation with his father, Vernon, who was his money manager and chief advisor after Colonel Tom Parker, and Elvis’s wife, over money and Presley’s lavish spending habits. That month, Elvis had spent more than $100,000 on Christmas presents that included 32 handguns and ten Mercedes-Benzes.
Elvis, not used to being told what to do or how much to spend, stormed out of his Graceland mansion in outer Memphis and began the odd series of events that would lead him to a meeting, in the Oval Office of the White House, with the President of the United States.
Still angry when he reached airport, Elvis, alone, simply booked a seat on the next flight out, a flight that happened to be going to Washington DC. (Another theory has it that Elvis flew to DC to be close to a woman friend named Joyce Bova, who lived in the District.)
On board the plane, an airline steward saw that Elvis was carrying a pistol and told him he couldn’t bring it on the plane. Elvis refused to leave the gun behind and was asked to leave the plane, however, the plane’s pilot, chased Elvis through the airport and catching up to him, said “I’m sorry, Mr. Presley, of course you can keep your gun.”
Once in DC, Elvis booked a room at the old Hotel Washington and then flew to Los Angeles where he kept a second home. "Elvis called and asked me to pick him up at the airport," Presley aide Jerry Schilling and at 3 AM chilling arrived at the LA airport to drive Presley to his west coast home at Hillcrest Drive in Beverly Hills. Schilling had been living in LA for the previous year, working as an apprentice film editor.
At that point, Elvis was already talking about having the federal government issue him a badge. Elvis had a large badge collection, but the Federal Agents credentials and badge, he would ask government officials for them no less than ten times in two days" represented some kind of ultimate power to him," Priscilla Presley later wrote "With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished."
The next day Elvis told Schilling that they were flying to Washington DC "He didn't say why," Schilling recalls, "but I thought the badge might be part of the reason."
Schilling booked the flight and then realized they had no cash. Elvis found a check book he had stored in the LA home but it was Sunday night and the banks were closed. Money machines were still a thing of the future. Elvis called his limo driver, Gerald Peters, whom Elvis employed while filming in Los Angeles.
Peters, Elvis called him Sir Gerald because he had once been a driver for Winston Churchill, was well known to the management of the exclusive Beverly Hilton Hotel and on the way to the airport, they stopped at the Beverly Hilton where they cashed a $500 check for the King of Rock and Roll.
On the flight, Elvis moved around the cabin and socialized with the passengers, stopping to speak to a G.I. returning home for the holidays.
“He (Elvis) comes back to me and he goes, “Where’s that money?” Jerry Schilling said “I know what’s going to happen, so I said, “What money?”
And he goes, “The 500 dollars.”
I said, “Elvis, we’re going to Washington. That’s all we’ve got.”
He said, “You don’t understand. This man’s been in Viet Nam. He’s going back home for Christmas.” Schilling handed over the money to Elvis who gave it to the solider.
Elvis lived most of his short life in a celebrity bubble and he was almost always surrounded by members of the infamous Memphis Mafia, old high school friends and other characters who took care of every detail for the king. When Elvis rushed out of Graceland that Saturday morning, all he carried was his wallet, several dollars and an unused credit card.
When Elvis arrived at the Memphis Airport, he marched over to the Pan Am ticket counter to book a flight to DC. The counter clerk asked how he would like to pay for the ticket and Elvis, realizing only then that he had no money, asked if the airline would send the bill to his manager “Colonel” Tom Parker. The clerk said she couldn’t do that. A supervisor was called and Elvis offered the supervisor a chance to use the Kings new Cadillac while he was gone, all he had to do was get him a ticket to DC but the supervisor declined the offer. Finally, Elvis remembered that he had been given a credit card for just such emergencies and the ticket to DC was purchased.
On the jet to Washington, Elvis, then 35-years-old, wrote a rambling six-page letter to President Richard M. Nixon.
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 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 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 Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.
Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507. I have two 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
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 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.
Landing again at National Airport and Elvis and Jerry Schilling rented a limo and had the driver take them by the main gate at the White House where Elvis dropped off his letter. It was 6:30 a.m.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” Schilling told Elvis about dropping off the letter. Still, Elvis ordered the limo driver pull up to the White House’s northwest gate, where he got out and handed the letter to a uniformed Secret Service officer
Schilling looked at Elvis and realized that wearing his black cape in the dark of the night that “Elvis looks a lot like Dracula” so Schilling climbed out of the limo and explained the note to the cop who agreed to deliver the letter to the president.
The pair returned do the Hotel, which is across the street from the US Treasury Department and a half block from the White House. Elvis took three rooms, and then left to visit the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs for unscheduled meeting with a deputy director who would not approve one of the coveted bureau badges for the superstar.
Meanwhile, somehow, not only was Presley’s letter to the President letter was delivered to the inner sanctums of the White House, it was delivered that day and handed off to White House aide Dwight Chapman who sent a quick memo with Elvis’s letter attached to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman.
Chapin’s note to Haldeman said that he thought it would be good for the President to meet Presley because the entertainer was "very pro" Nixon. “In addition” he wrote, “if the president wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with,"
In turn Halderman passed the issue to senior Presidential aide Egil "Bud" Krogh, White House Deputy for Domestic Affairs. As fate should have it, Krogh was an avid Elvis fan as well.
Krogh was intrigued by the idea of a Nixon-Presley summit and with Haldeman’s consent scheduled the meeting for 12:30 that afternoon. Krogh then called the Washington Hotel and set up a meeting through Schilling.
Krogh recalled the events of the meeting:
“It was December 21, 1970. I got a call from Dwight Chapin, who was one of my best friends on the White House staff. And he said, 'The King is here'. And I said, 'King who?' I looked at the President's schedule and said, 'There aren't any kings on the president's schedule'.
He said, 'No, not just any two-bit king, the real king. The King of Rock--Elvis. He's right here in Washington and he wants to see the president'. And I thought that was just an elaborate practical joke. . . . We did those things in those days. I felt that this is just a joke, that this wasn't true. But he sent over a letter that he said had been written by Elvis Presley, asking to meet with the president to help him with the drug problem…..
In about an hour, through the OMB security office of the Oval Executive Office building I get a call saying that 'Elvis Presley is here with his two bodyguards'. And they came down the hall to my office and he really was Elvis Presley, dressed in a purple jumpsuit and a white shirt open to the navel with a big gold chain and thick-rimmed sunglasses. And he came in and I must say, I was very impressed with him. I had been a big fan of his during the 1950s.
He proceeded to tell me about how much he felt for his country. He wanted to help the country, to do what he could. He felt he had an obligation because he'd been given so much. He talked about serving in the military, and felt that that was his duty.
And I thought, 'Well, you know, this guy seems to be saying the things that that Richard Nixon would like to hear, so let's see if we can't set up a meeting'. So I wrote a memo to the president suggesting some talking points and, and Dwight Chapin wrote a memo to then-Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, to get approval for this meeting. And it came back approved. So I called back over to their hotel and said, 'The meeting's on. Come on over'.
The meeting was scheduled to last for five minute in the Oval office.
A few hours later, at 11:45, Jeff Donfeld, a White House aide, recalled Elvis’ arrival to the White House. He said that another aide called him and said "The king is at the gate. I said, 'What are you talking about? 'He said, 'The king is at the gate.' I didn't have a clue. He said, 'Elvis Presley.' I said, "You've got to be kidding me.' "
It was Elvis at the gates, wearing a tight purple velvet pants, the matching cape, a white point collared shirt unbuttoned to reveal two enormous gold chains. He came bearing gifts, photos of his family and a World War II commemorative Colt .45 pistol with seven silver bullets. mounted in a display case that Elvis had taken from his Los Angeles mansion. Elvis and Schilling were now joined by Elvis bodyguard Sonny West.
“I got a call from the Secret Service telling me we had a little problem, because Elvis had brought a gun in to give the president, a nice Colt automatic with bullets in the display case. I had to go over and explain to them that 'No guns in the Oval Office' was standard policy around here. I hoped he'd understand. .... And he seemed to take that in good grace.
The President’s staff prepared a list of talking points for him that focused on drug abuse and a suggestion that Elvis "Record an album with the theme 'get high on life' at the federal narcotic rehabilitation and research facility at Lexington, Kentucky.”
Finally Elvis was shown into the Oval office, with Jerry Schilling and Sonny West waiting outside. A White House photographer followed Bud Krogh into the meeting.
“We walked in a half an hour later into the Oval Office” Krogh said “and the president got up. It was a little bit awkward at first, because I'm not sure that Elvis really believed that he was there. They had a really weird discussion about a lot of things that had nothing to do with the talking points I had written. Elvis was telling the president how difficult it was to play in Las Vegas. The president said, 'I understand, Las Vegas is a tough town'. And then Elvis said, 'And you know, the Beatles came over here and made a lot of money and said some un-American things'. And the president looked at me, like, 'Well, what's this about the Beatles?'
And then the real reason for the trip finally came out as Elvis said, 'Mr. President, can you get me a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs?' And the president looked and he said, 'Bud, can we get him a badge?' And I said, 'Well, Mr. President, if you want to get him a badge, we can do that'. He said, 'Well, get him a badge'.
Well, Elvis was so happy about this, he steps around the side of the desk and he goes over and he grabs him. And one of my abiding memories while thinking, 'This is probably the last thing I'll ever do in the Oval Office', was Elvis Presley hugging Richard Nixon, who's sort of standing there looking up, thinking, 'Oh, my God!' You know? And they parted. And then Elvis asked if he could bring in his bodyguards, to which the president said, 'Bud, do we have time for that?' And I thought, 'You're this far into it, why not finish it off'. So, I said, 'Yes, sir, you've got a few more minutes'.
So [Jerry Schilling and Sonny West ] came in and, and the president shook hands with them and told Elvis, 'You've got some big ones here, Elvis'. And he said, 'Yes', and the president went behind his desk, and opened up the bottom drawer to give them each a gift. Well, Elvis just sensed that there was a lot of stuff in that drawer. So he went behind the desk and, as the president is taking out the cufflinks and the paperweights and the golf balls, Elvis is reaching in towards the back of the drawer and taking out the real gold stuff, the valuable presents--because they were sort of lined up in order of expense, or cost. The higher the roller, the more expensive the present.
So Elvis starts taking all these things out, and he says, 'Mr. President, they have wives'. And so he dived back into the drawer again and outcome the presents for the wives. And they walked out of there--of course, this was four days before Christmas--with their hands filled with all of these presidential goodies.
And after that, we got him a badge, which Elvis, apparently, carried with him for a long time. It's on display at Graceland. I went down there after I wrote a little book about this, and the wallet in which the badge had been carried was well worn. It showed that he felt that he'd been given more authority than the badge really suggested. This was just an honorary badge, but he took it like he'd been given a real agent's badge. We had to tell him that there were no federal agents-at-large. That's what he'd asked me about. But that remains one of the more humorous incidents of my time in the White House.”
At Elvis' request, the meeting was never made public, however a year later, attack columnist Jack Anderson ran the story under the headline “Presley Gets Narcotics Bureau Badge" but the story died in the paper.
After lunch and a tour of the White House, Elvis was presented with the badge by Bureau of Narcotics director John Finlator in Bud Krogh’s office. Finlator promised to send along additional credentials.
Neither Elvis nor the President would survive the 1970s. Almost four years later, Watergate brought down the Nixon presidency. Elvis continued on his road to self-destruction. He died on his bathroom on August 16, 1977. He suffered from glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon all of which were possibly caused by his drug abuse.
Presley immediately began showing the President his law enforcement paraphernalia including badges from police departments in California, Colorado and Tennessee. Presley indicated that he had been playing Las Vegas and the President indicated that he was aware of how difficult it is to perform in Las Vegas.
The President mentioned that he thought Presley could reach young people, and that it was important for Presley to retain his credibility. Presley responded that he did his thing by singing. He said he could not get to the kids if he made a speech on stage, that he had to reach them in his own way. The President nodded agreement.
Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme. The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest. Violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.
Presley indicated to the President in a very emotional manner that he was 'on your side.' Presley kept repeating that he wanted to be helpful, that he wanted to restore some respect for the flag which was being lost. He mentioned that he was just a poor boy from Tennessee who had gotten a lot from his country, which in some way he wanted to repay. He also mentioned that he is studying Communist brainwashing and the drug culture for over ten years. He mentioned that he knew a lot about this and was accepted by the hippies. He said he could go right into a group of young people or hippies and be accepted which he felt could be helpful to him in his drug drive. The President indicated again his concern that Presley retain his credibility.
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 left arm around the President and hugged him.
In going out, Presley asked the President if he would see his two associates. The President agreed and they came over and shook hands with the President briefly. At this meeting, the President thanked them for their efforts and again mentioned his concern for Presley's credibility."