Thanks to our friends at the National Constitution Center for this look into history!
The secret meeting was brief at the White House, and it involved a U.S. President and a King, of sorts. And even today, it generates more interest at the National Archives, in terms of image requests, than the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
The seemingly spontaneous appearance at the White House on December 21 had stunned Nixon staffers earlier in the day, when the rock legend appeared unannounced at the White House’s gates. Presley and the leader of the free world chatted for a few minutes, posed for pictures, and then Presley, his two aides and Krogh grabbed lunch at the White House dining room, in front of a bemused crowd.
The King soon left after getting a special badge from Nixon. The story was kept quiet for 13 months, at Presley’s request. But columnist Jack Anderson broke the story nationally, and since then, the Nixon-Presley summit has become a legend.
One of the photos taken from the session has also achieved iconic status. It is available from the National Archives in various formats. (Unfortunately, the coffee mugs and T-shirts are out of stock online at the National Archives web store.)
There have been a few books written about the summit, one comedy movie filmed about it, and a new movie starts shooting this winter with Kevin Spacey starring as Nixon.
The whole idea of people popping into the White House was common back in the early 1800s. In one incident, Thomas Jefferson held an open house on New Year’s Day in 1802, which so inspired him that he finished a document called the Danbury letter that defined the separation of church and state in constitutional law. Another open house involving Andrew Jackson in 1829 ended up in a drunken riot of sorts.
But New Year’s Day receptions had ended in 1932 and the time had long past when someone could show up at the White House gates and request to see the President – unless you were Elvis Presley.
Jerry Schilling was with Elvis on that fateful day, and it recounted it in 2010 in a panel discussion at the National Archives with Krogh. Schilling was a former Presley employee who was working at Paramount studios.
Apparently, Schilling said Elvis had a disagreement with his family in Memphis over the number of Christmas gifts he was buying, and on a whim, he grabbed an American Express card and jumped on a plane to meet Schilling, after a brief detour to Washington.
“Jerry, I need you to come to Washington with me,” Presley told Schilling. Schilling arranged for the day off, called Graceland to tell Presley’s family he was safe, and the two grabbed a red-eye flight. Schilling didn’t know why they were flying to Washington.
On the flight, Presley bumped into Senator George Murphy, and he sat back down with Schilling. Presley wrote a handwritten note on American Airlines stationary, addressed it to President Nixon and requested a meeting at the White House.
At 6:30 a.m., Presley walked out of a limo and went up to the White House’s northwest gate, and handed the letter to the guards, who recognized Presley in his purple outfit.
Krogh said he then got a call from Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s scheduling secretary, saying, “the King is here.” Chapin had called Krogh since Krogh was working on drug policy issues for Nixon and Presley wanted to help President Nixon solved the illegal drug use problem. Krogh’s response was, “what King, there aren’t any kings on the schedule.”
Chapin sent the letter to Krogh, who called Presley’s hotel to confirm it was really Elvis who wanted to see President Nixon. Chapin also sent a memo to Bob Haldeman, who responded, “you must be kidding.” Nevertheless, Haldeman approved the summit.
Presley, Schilling and Presley’s bodyguard, Sonny West, then met with Krogh at the White House. Presley spoke about how he wanted to be made a “federal agent at large” and help in the war on drugs.
Krogh wrote talking points for the meeting, called Presley’s team and asked them to come over at 11:45 a.m. The Secret Service then took possession of a gift of a gun from Presley to Nixon when it screened the visitors.
The meeting happened at 12:30 p.m., with just Nixon, Presley and Krogh in the Oval Office, along with a photographer. Presley showed Nixon some family photographs and his collection of law enforcement badges.
Krogh took notes as the two men spoke. Presley talked about how anti-American the Beatles had been recently, his study of Communist brainwashing techniques, and his desire to get a Narcotics Bureau badge. After Nixon agreed to get the badge for Presley, he surprised everyone by hugging President Nixon.
Nixon then agreed to meet Schilling and West briefly, and more pictures were taken. Presley and his friends received some cufflinks as a gift from Nixon. The summit ended, and the Presley entourage went to the White House mess.
Krogh said jaws dropped in the dining room as Presley entered and sat down to eat as they waited for the badge to be delivered. Then Elvis left the building after receiving the badge.
Several years later, Nixon recalled the meeting in a 1990 TV interview.
“He was very flamboyant. I didn’t know much about him except what I read. He was a very shy man. Flamboyance was covering up the shyness,” Nixon said, who called Presley a “very sincere and decent man.”
Schilling summed up the appeal of the brief summit. “I saw the most powerful man in the world, … and I saw in a meeting the most popular person in the world. “
“The two connected and I think they really got the loneliness of their positions in the world,” Schilling said, adding that Nixon and Presley kept in touch after the meeting.
“If there is ever a true American story, I think that is one at the top.”
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.