Nixon and Elvis: The stuff tabloid dreams are made of

December 12, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Just when we all needed a little boost for the holidays, Richard Nixon has come through for us.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., has just sent out its new catalog.

And among the usual array of books, tie tacks, cuff links and porcelain dishes, is the truly bizarre:

"Elvis Has Been Spotted -- He's At Nixonland!" the catalog crows.

Nixonland?

Never mind. This is the age of marketing, and the Nixon Library knows a good thing when it sees it.

And so it offers posters, postcards, watches and T-shirts all featuring one of the most unusual photographs in the National Archives:

The Oval Office meeting between Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley.

Here is brief history of that meeting, drawn from actual government documents:

In December 1970, Elvis sent a scrawling, handwritten letter to Richard Nixon, asking to be made a "Federal Agent At Large" so that Elvis could fight drug crime in America.

"I have done an in depth study of Drug Abuse and Communist Brainwashing Techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing, where I can and will do the most good," Elvis wrote. "I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very Private."

The letter was passed up the White House chain of command and the historic meeting between the President and the King took place in the Oval Office at 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1970.

Nixon wore his regulation gray suit and tie. Elvis wore a dark cape, open-necked white shirt, gold chains and a huge ornamental belt buckle.

At the meeting, Nixon told Elvis he could teach young people about the evils of drug abuse -- somewhat ironic considering Elvis would later die of a drug overdose -- and Elvis told Nixon that he thought the Beatles "had been a real force for anti-American spirit."

Nixon "nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise."

Elvis presented Nixon with a World War II Colt .45 pistol and later "in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, [Elvis] put his left arm around the President and hugged him."

Then they shook hands for the White House photographer and the black and white photo of this handshake is now what adorns all the paraphernalia on sale at the Nixon Library.

But is the stuff actually selling?

You bet.

"The response has been phenomenal," Kevin Cartwright, deputy director of the Nixon Library told me in a phone interview. "That meeting was a Washington legend, and the photograph has become an icon. We get phone call and faxes from around the world for it."

Did Nixon have to approve of all this? I asked Cartwright.

"Well, he lives in New Jersey," Cartwright said, "and he only comes by about once a year. He does participate in the library, though, and his daughters, Julie and Tricia, sit on the board of directors."

But did you have to ask his permission to sell the Elvis photo and did you have to get his permission to have it colorized for the T-shirt?

"No," Cartwright said. "But when Julie once purchased an item from the catalog for her parents' 51st wedding anniversary, we were very relieved that the Nixons liked it."

What did she buy?

"It's a replica of the Richard Nixon birthplace made into a birdhouse," Cartwright said.

A birdhouse?

"Yes," he said. "It's on the back page of the catalog."

I turned to the back page of the catalog.

Item No. 22 is "Birthplace Birdhouse. A cozy re-creation of the Nixon boyhood home. Designed as Presidential headquarters for your fine feathered friends. $45."

Uh, has the former president ever complained that his life has been turned into kitsch? I asked.

"No," Cartwright said. "We have to be compared to gift shops at attractions -- we are just 15 minutes from Disneyland -- and we have tried to maintain a certain level of presidential decorum."

The original picture of Nixon and Elvis is at the museum -- on loan from the National Archives, which also sells copies of it -- as is the .45 caliber Colt that Elvis gave Nixon.

Which reminds me, I told Cartwright. How on earth did Elvis manage to get .45 automatic into the White House?

"Well, the Secret Service was very nervous about it," Cartwright said. "But, my gosh, he was Elvis."

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