At 6:30 a.m. on Monday, December 21, 1970, a limousine rolled up to the back gate of the White House. A tall, striking man bounded out and “strode purposefully” toward the security guards.
The stranger’s bizarre appearance alarmed the Secret Service. He wore a lavish but rumpled “navy-blue gabardine, karate-style two-piece suit over a high-collared shirt, with a topcoat draped over his shoulders, accessorized with a gold medallion, a thick gold belt and a gold-handled walking stick.”
Reflexively snapping into “high-alert mode,” the agents brusquely ordered the man and his limo to depart. They relaxed, however, when they realized they were talking to the King.
Elvis Presley politely requested to see the president. He handed the security guards a note scrawled on six pages of American Airlines stationery. “Happy to be of service, they took the letter and promised to get it to the President within the hour.”
The epistle asked Richard Nixon to appoint Presley as a covert federal law enforcement agent.
Later that day, the president invited the King to a confidential meeting in the Oval Office. There, Nixon gave the rock star a badge and made him a special agent of the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
That much of the story is fairly well-known. Once declassified, the above photo became and remains the most requested image in the history of the National Archives.
Some historians make the mistake of dismissing this episode as a mere curiosity. In so doing, they underestimate both the complexity of the singer’s motives and the seriousness with which he enlisted as a secret soldier on the front lines of Nixon’s War on Drugs.
Presley’s Letter to Nixon
Early that morning, the King had boarded a red-eye flight from Los Angeles. While in the air, he penned a heartfelt missive to the Leader of the Free World.
The rock star’s determination to make a difference permeates his note to the president. As a secret agent, Elvis vowed to “help the country out” by battling the “drug culture, the hippie elements,” student radicals, “Black Panthers, etc.” He implied that he would wield the advantage of surprise, because those dangerous groups “do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it the establishment. I call it American and I love it.”
Demonstrating the discretion Nixon later appreciated in the Plumbers, the King kept vague about his precise methods: “if I were made a Federal Agent at Large… I would 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.”
Next, Elvis underscored the urgency of the matter and demonstrated his gift for subterfuge: “Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505–506–507…. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for 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… call me anytime today, tonight, or tomorrow.”
Presley masterfully buttered up the president throughout the letter. The King began with a direct expression of admiration and “great respect.” Then, he dropped a couple of names: “I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country…. I am on this plane with Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with.” Next, the singer mentioned something the two had in common: The Jaycees had just named Presley “one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men,” an honor Nixon had received some years before. Elvis concluded with an appeal to materialism: “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.”
Elvis Navigates the Rocky Shoals of the Federal Bureaucracy
Even for a colossal celebrity like the King, it was not easy to get a same-day appointment with the Leader of the Free World. Given Nixon’s now-notorious paranoia, the odds for Elvis seemed particularly poor.
Of course, a man of Presley’s iron determination does not sit around waiting for history to happen to him; he gets up and makes it happen.
Elvis checked into the designated hotel under the promised pseudonym. He had not slept for two days, but there was no time to rest now. The King “cleaned up” and changed into fresh clothes suitable for meeting the president: a black or deep purple “velvet suit with an open-neck shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a lion’s head pendant,” an ensemble completed by a huge, “diamond-encrusted” gold belt buckle and “amber sunglasses.”
Next, Presley visited the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to pitch his plan there. He scored a meeting with Deputy Director John Finlator, who politely listened, but ultimately declined either to declare the singer a secret agent or to issue him a badge.
As the singer processed this disappointment, Finlator’s phone rang. It was for the King, from the Washington Hotel. The White House had just called; Nixon expected the rock star in the Oval Office within the half hour.
Presley had a friend in the White House. Noting the anti-drug tenor of his letter, the Secret Service delivered it to the most appropriate presidential aide: Egil “Bud” Krogh, Nixon’s liaison to the FBI and the Narcotics Bureau. Fortunately for Elvis, the young lawyer also happened to be a huge fan. Krogh convinced his superiors to approve the meeting, and to let him write the agenda.
The memorandum the aide drafted for Nixon stated the meeting’s purpose: “To thank Elvis Presley for his offer to help… stop the drug epidemic in the country, and to ask him to work with us in bringing a more positive attitude to young people through-out the country.”
Sadly, Krogh missed the mark in outlining how the King could help the White House win the War on Drugs. Failing to understand the singer’s request to become a secret agent, the aide saw Elvis as a public relations pawn for the president to deploy against a counterculture corrupting young Americans. “Two of youth’s folk heroes, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, recently died… from drug-related causes. Their deaths are a sharp reminder of how the rock music culture has been linked to the drug sub-culture. If our youth are going to emulate the rock music stars, from now on let those stars affirm their conviction that real and lasting talent is the result of self motivation and discipline and not artificial chemical euphoria.”
Specifically, Krogh proposed creating “an hour Television Special in which Presley narrates as stars… sing popular songs and interpret them for parents in order to show drug and other anti-establishment themes in rock music.” Krogh also though Elvis should “Record an album with the theme ‘Get High on Life’ at the federal narcotic rehabilitation and research facility at Lexington, Kentucky.” Moreover, he thought the singer should “Encourage fellow artists to develop a rock musical theme, ‘Get High on Life.’” Finally, Krogh proposed that the King serve as “a consultant to the Advertising Council on how to communicate anti-drug messages to youth.”
Because Krogh failed to understand Presley’s letter, the aide prepared Nixon poorly for the meeting. Elvis did not want to be an anti-drug spokesman for the administration; instead, the King hoped to enlist in the War on Drugs as a covert operative.
Summit in the Oval Office
A few decades ago, calling a meeting a summit really signified something. We reserved the term to describe a face-to-face between the Leader of the Free World and the Premier of the USSR, representing the Soviet Bloc.
Sadly, overuse has long since vitiated the concept. By describing any meeting — however insignificant — as a summit, enemies of the English language have succeeded only in robbing the term of its usefulness. The inexorable absurdity of summit’s meaning creep defies parody. Now, when Teach for America invites me to its annual alumni reunion, they advertise it as a summit. I used to work for a corporation that gathered all its employees on one site every year or two; they absurdly called that a summit, too. In neither case am I fooled. By definition, any meeting to which I am invited is not a summit.
However, it is entirely justified to invoke the term when the President of the United States hosts the King of Rock & Roll in the Oval Office.
First — to document the summit for posterity — the two men posed for photos. Elvis told Nixon how the Secret Service had confiscated the gift he had brought from his Los Angeles mansion: A commemorative World War II-vintage Colt .45 handgun in a display case.
Then, the King got straight to the point. According to Krogh’s minutes, “Presley immediately began showing the President his law enforcement paraphernalia including badges from police departments in California, Colorado and Tennessee.”
Poorly prepared by Krogh’s memo, Nixon failed grasp that the singer’s main goal was to obtain federal law enforcement credentials. The president opined that “Presley could reach young people,” presumably with the anti-drug message articulated in his letter.
Elvis expertly redirected the Commander in Chief. “Presley responded that he did his thing by ‘just singing.’ He said that he could not get to the kids if he made a speech on the stage, that he had to reach them in his own way. The President nodded in agreement.”
Next, the King briefed Nixon on a menace he had not mentioned in his letter: “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.”
Confused, the Commander in Chief asked, “Beatles?”
Krogh helpfully interjected, “They’re a singing group, popular.”
Now oriented, Nixon “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.”
Elvis “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.” The rock star said he “knew a lot” about “Communist brainwashing and the drug culture,” having studied them “for over ten years…. He said he could go right into a group of young people or hippies and be accepted which he felt could be helpful to [Nixon] in his drug drive.”
Recognizing that the King’s offer to work as a covert agent could endanger his reputation, the president repeatedly expressed “concern,” stressing how “important” it was “for Presley to retain his credibility.”
Despite the perils, Nixon knew he needed Elvis in the War on Drugs. Overruling Deputy Director Finlator, the Commander in Chief ordered the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to issue the King’s credentials.
Having realized a longstanding dream, the singer became emotional. “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.”
That afternoon, the Department of Justice issued Elvis his badge and his identification card. Having joined the ranks of federal law enforcement, the King caught a plane back to Graceland.
Coming eventually: Presley’s covert operations in the War on Drugs.
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