The King and our psyche

William Conrad Nowels

April 07, 1992|By William Conrad Nowels

THE CURRENT debate over whether the likeness on the new Elvis Presley postage stamp should be the young Rockabilly Elvis or the older Las Vegas Elvis comes in a presidential election year. It also comes just as I have finished setting down on paper the memoirs (kept secret these past two decades) of a lady from Capitol Hill about her 2 1/2 -year love affair with The King.

These apparently disparate events actually offer an opportunity for reflection on similarities between the now-mythic Elvis and the American psyche as revealed in the current national malaise. We are enduring (and enjoying) the presidential campaign, our quadrennial assault on truth and reason. As we dredge up our most revealing and most pernicious national myths, however, it becomes terrifyingly clear how little of that mythology will stand up to any scrutiny sharper than that likely to be employed by, say, the champions of "Desert Storm." We are at last being forced to face how deadly it has been, and will be, to continue lying to ourselves.

In this, as in so much of the America of the second half of the 20th century, Elvis not only expressed the longings in our Zeitgeist; he was practically a metaphor for it. He had rocketed, leather jacketed and greasily coiffed, across the "good old days" of the Eisenhower years, the Pax Americana. Then, in the 1960s, he had lost himself, as though wary of the sexual revolution he had wrought, in a series of silly and trivial Hollywood incarnations.

Not until the Vietnam years did The King return in triumph to center stage. It was an imperial image he evoked then, appropriate to the nation's imperialist adventure in Southeast Asia. Cloaked and bejeweled, where once he had crooned and snarled of love, he invoked pieties while personifying indulgence. At this moment of great personal triumph, the nation suffered a great moral crisis: the revelation of the civilian slaughter at My Lai.

It was also the moment Elvis Presley met the one woman who would possess the independence, the moral authority, to save him from himself. Joyce Bova, born and bred in Baltimore, actually worked for the very committee investigating My Lai. She was not a teen-age beauty queen, nor was she a starlet. But she had beauty, combined with a mind and career of her own. This made her the kind of woman not even the most sensational tabloids have ever imagined would be swept into the life of the swivel-hipped, silver-throated truck driver from Tupelo.

It was to her that he confided his vision of that oldest of American myths: of being chosen by God for greater and higher things. But when he spoke of the convicted of My Lai as persecuted soldiers simply doing their duty (again reflecting the torment in the popular psyche), she reminded him that the soldiers who tried them were also doing their duty -- their duty to the military code all of them had sworn to uphold.

Finally, Elvis would not accept the ultimate truth with which Joyce faced him: that his indulgence was killing him. He had become too rich and too powerful to listen. There were too many yes-men beholden to the spoils system that reigned in his hermetically sealed world. These men told him what he wanted to hear. Protectionism and isolationism, it seems, provide a dangerously false sense of security for a super-star and for a country.

While I prefer to remember the sweet innocence of the early Elvis, as well as the spontaneous decency and generosity that never completely deserted him, traits we as a people have demonstrated time and again, I feel the health of the body politic might best be served by choosing the image of the Vegas Elvis, the soon-to-be-ravaged King, the doomed King. Elvis would once again hold a mirror up to the American soul, demonstrating the price to be paid when idealism is betrayed by excess.

We cannot have our cake and eat it, too, cannot adequately educate our children nor provide them with clean air and water while spending $300 billion for "defense," when our greatest enemy is, as was Elvis', self-indulgence and greed.

Not surprisingly, power fascinated the poor white trash kid who would be king. It turned him on that Joyce Bova strolled the corridors of power in Washington, and, when he pursued her there, he took time out to pose for a photograph with Richard Nixon. (At a time when Neil Bush's role in the savings and loan scandal goes virtually unnoticed, it should be pointed out that The King once said about the just-deposed vice president, Spiro Agnew: "---- 'im! He's a crook.")

Politicians send metered mail. People lick stamps. As the often-absurd spectacle of the presidential election grinds on, might not licking this stamp remind us not only that idealism can be betrayed, but that it is in our capacity to redeem it?

William Conrad Nowels, a New York writer, has just completed "Don't Ask Forever: A Washington Woman's Secret Years With Elvis Presley."

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