The National Archives in Washington DC is home to some of the most iconic photos and most important documents in American history, making it the go-to destination for history buffs and grade school field trips everywhere. If you didn't know already, you can actually request and purchase copies of the many pieces within the Archives to enjoy and cherish at home. What is the most requested item to date, you might be wondering? The Declaration of Independence? Nope. The Moon Landing? No dice either. Surprisingly, the most popular photo in the National Archives' literally century-spanning collection is Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon shaking hands in the Oval Office. No Photoshop trickery here, folks, this meeting actually
This arguably greatest "wha da faaaah..."
photo in American history has only gotten weirder with hindsight, but even in 1970, President Nixon meeting with anyone remotely involved in rock n' roll seemed just as likely a giant flying pig (which, evidently, also happened in the 70s
). Nixon was the absolute antithesis of late-1960s counter-culture, a good portion of his Presidential platform was about ending the indecent antics of hippies and resorting traditional American values, and he went out of his way to classify rock stars as public enemies and give them hell for their protest music and tight pants. So what the hell was he doing cheesing it with the man who essentially created the American youth counter-culture movement and put "wholesome family values" on blast with the force of his gyrating hips? IN THE WHITE HOUSE???
Well, the story behind Elvis and Tricky Dick joining forces is as strange as you'd expect, if not stranger. It all started in Los Angeles, a week or so before Christmas in 1970. As it turns out, the King was an avid collector of badges- police badges, federal badges, that sort of thing- and at the time, he had his sights set on obtaining a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. As Priscilla Presley explained in her book Elvis and Me
, "The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him...With the badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished." So, like anyone who's rich and bored, Elvis took an American Airlines red-eye from LA to DC to get himself a shiny new badge, and he knew just how he was going to get it. During the flight, Elvis used some American Airlines paper and chicken-scratched a letter
personally addressed to President Nixon expressing his "concern for our country" and how he wanted to help. "Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out," he wrote, "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." He went on to talk about his "in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques" to prove he really was the man for the job, and requested a private, personal meeting with Nixon within the next day or so.
On December 21, 1970 around 6:30am, Elvis and his assistant Jerry Schilling rolled up to the White House in a limo to personally deliver the letter to the President. In one way or another, the letter ended up on the desk of Egil "Bud" Krogh, Nixon's personal aide and, coincidentally, a huge Elvis fan. Krogh thought a meeting with Elvis was a fantastic idea, as Nixon's team had been looking for a way to appeal to the youth and make Tricky Dick more hip and relatable. While Elvis was already 35 by 1970, he was still riding the wave of his wildly successful 1968 comeback special, so he was relevant enough to possibly give Nixon some cool points. After some convincing, Krogh set up a meeting through Schilling for that same day. At 12 o' clock noon, Elvis, along with Schilling and his bodyguard Sonny West, arrived to the White House to meet with the President himself. Unabashedly "Elvis," the King showed up in a purple velvet suit, sunglasses, and a massive gold belt fit for a wrestling champion. He also came with a gift for the President, a Colt .45 pistol he had personally hand-selected from his collection, but unfortunately, the Secret Service confiscated the item before he was escorted to the Oval Office.
Finally, the King and the President met, and like everything in this story so far, it was as weird as you'd expect. According to Krogh, the pair bonded over their mutual hate for the Beatles, with Elvis calling them "a real force for anti-American spirit," as well as their commitment to fighting against drugs and anti-American drug users (despite Elvis being one to, shall we say, partake
in such activities from time to time). There was even talk of Elvis convincing his fellow rockers to champion more wholesome themes and values ("Get High On Life" was a campaign idea thrown out there), but Elvis wasn't going to be deterred from his real
reason for being there. After proving that he was on Nixon's side in the fight against drugs, and showing off his police badge collection he somehow got past Secret Service, Elvis asked if he could be given a Narc badge and be appointed Federal Agent at Large. A Federal Agent position didn't technically exist for the Narcotics Bureau, but Nixon was willing to humor Elvis, so he gave him the honorary position along with a brand new badge. Elvis was so happy he apparently came up to Nixon, swung his arm over his shoulder, and hugged out the 37th President.
After introducing Schilling and West to the President and collecting a few more White House goodies, Elvis and Nixon said their goodbyes and parted ways. In 1988, long after Elvis passed away and Watergate left Nixon's reputation in shreds, the National Archives put copies of the photo on sale. They received 8,000 requests within a week, and to this day, the Archive is well stocked with Elvis/Nixon shirts, postcards, and snow globes. Recently, there was even a movie about the whole event, starring Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon, which definitely used the improbability of it all as its main source of humor. Again, hindsight is 20/20, but it's amazing to think that President Paranoid McWiretaps would even allow a greasy rock n' roller who tried to smuggle a firearm into the Oval Office shake his hand, let alone hug
him. But, sometimes history can be stranger than fiction, and in a perfect storm of "how" and "why," the King of Rock and the US President came together, seemingly bonded on a somewhat genuine level, and snapped a photo that remains one of the strangest photos in US history. Oh, and Elvis got his badge.