50 Years Ago: Elvis Presley Meets Richard Nixon and Rats Out the Beatles
Elvis Presley showed up unannounced at the entrance gate of the White House on Dec. 21, 1970, dropping off a handwritten request to meet President Richard Nixon. Presley would use the encounter with Nixon to smear the Beatles as "a real force for anti-American spirit."
During a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., that morning, Presley jotted down a letter to Nixon that offered to "help the country out" in an era of violent protests against racism and the Vietnam War. "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," he wrote. "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."
But there was a catch. "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 communications with people of all ages," he continued. "First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials."
What Presley sought was a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, predecessor to today's Drug Enforcement Agency. "The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him," wife Priscilla Presley recalled in her memoir, Elvis and Me. "With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished."
White House counsel Egil "Bud" Krogh, a Presley fan later convicted as one of the Watergate conspirators, arranged the meeting with the President. Krogh wrote a memo that detailed what Presley told Nixon about the Beatles. "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."
Krogh discussed the conversation in Return of the King: Elvis Presley's Great Comeback. "I don't want to say Nixon didn't know about the Beatles, but when Elvis started talking about them, he goes 'Beatles?'" the counsel said. "And I go, 'They're a singing group, popular.' Nixon liked Rachmaninoff, he liked classical music. I mean, I don't know quite how much he knows at this point. And when Elvis said they were saying things that were sort of un-American, Nixon goes 'What?' Elvis didn't mention that [in his letter]."
(The National Archives and Records Administration features an interactive website with documents and photos that tell the story of the day the President met the King.)
Presley, whose drug abuse contributed to his death in 1977, asked for and, later that day, received his Bureau of Narcotics badge. But the King wasn't done with the Fab Four yet. Ten days later on New Year's Eve, Presley appeared at FBI headquarters to request a meeting with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Presley was told that Hoover was unavailable, but was given a courtesy tour of the FBI building. Four days laterm an FBI official, M.A. Jones, described the visit in a memo now posted on the Smoking Gun: "Presley indicated that he is of the opinion that the Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music while entertaining in this country during the early and middle 1960s."
The Beatles, for their part, idolized Presley. The group visited the King at his Los Angeles home in 1965. "The saddest part is that, years and years later, we found out that he tried to have us banished from America, because he was very big with the FBI," said Ringo Starr in Anthology. "That's very sad to me, that he felt so threatened that he thought, like a lot of people, that we were bad for American youth. This is Mr. Hips, the man, and he felt we were a danger. I think that the danger was mainly to him and his career."
"He's in the transcript saying — to Richard Nixon, of all people — 'Well, sir, these Beatles: they're very un-American and they take drugs,'" added Paul McCartney. "I felt a bit betrayed by that, I must say. The great joke was that we were taking drugs, and look what happened to him. He was caught on the toilet full of them! It was sad. But I still love him, particularly in his early period. He was very influential on me."
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