Tennessee History For Kids: 51 years ago, Nixon gave Elvis a Badge
On December 21, 1970, a White House photographer snapped a photograph of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon together in the Oval Office. Today, that photograph is the most requested image in the National Archives.
So what’s the story behind this meeting?
According to Jerry Schilling, a lifelong friend of Presley’s, the trip started because Presley was upset about recent publicity and family matters and wanted to get away from it all. Presley took a commercial flight from Memphis to Los Angeles, where Schilling worked, and asked him to pick him up at the airport. After Presley got a good night sleep, he and Schilling had a long talk.
“I don’t want anybody in the world to know where I am,” Presley told his friend.
Presley talked Schilling into flying with him to Washington, D.C., but didn’t say what he had in mind. Since Presley had no cash, Schilling cashed a $500 check and went with his famous friend on the plane. But the money didn’t last long. As often happened, Presley gave the $500 to a soldier coming home from Vietnam whom he met on the plane.
Presley asked the flight attendant for some stationery. He wrote a letter to President Nixon, then asked Schilling to proofread it. After they landed and checked into a hotel, they dropped off the letter at the White House.
You can read the six-page handwritten letter on the internet today. In it, Presley offers to “be of service” to Nixon in any way he can, hinting that he would like to be made a federal agent of some kind. “I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy,” Presley concluded.
It didn’t take the White House staff too long to make time for Presley. That afternoon, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll strolled through the security entrance to the White House, wearing a dark jumpsuit, cape, sunglasses, and a large belt buckle. One of his escorts carried a box that contained Presley’s gift to Nixon: A World War II-era Colt 45 that security guards confiscated. “’No guns in the Oval Office’ was policy,” said Egil “Bud” Krogh, the White House deputy for domestic affairs. “He seemed to take that in good grace.”
A few minutes later Presley walked into the Oval Office. He and Nixon had a friendly talk about various things, including the Colt 45, the political opinions of the Beatles and Presley’s military service.
“Presley indicated to the President in a very emotional manner that he was ‘on your side,’” Krogh later wrote in an official memo. “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 ways he wanted to repay.”
Presley brought up the subject of a souvenir, asking Nixon for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
“Bud, can we get him a badge?” Nixon asked Krogh.
“Well, Mr. President, if you want to get him a badge, we can do that.”
“Well, get him a badge.”
Presley was grateful for this, so he stepped around the desk, put his arm around Nixon and hugged him. “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,” Krogh later said.
Elvis started to leave. Then he turned and asked if he could bring in his bodyguards.
In walked Presley’s two escorts, Schilling and Sonny West. “You’ve got some big ones here, Elvis,” the president said as he shook their hands.
Nixon walked behind his desk and opened the bottom drawer to give each of them a gift. Sensing there was a lot of stuff in the desk, Presley started rummaging through it.
“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,” Krogh remembered.
“Mr. President, they have wives,” Presley said. So out came more presents.
“And after that, we got him a badge, which Elvis, apparently, carried with him for a long time,” Krogh said.