Who's that with Elvis and other celebrities? A PICTURE OF THE PRESIDENCY

March 28, 1994|By Michael Yockel | Michael Yockel,Special to The Sun

John Strausbaugh understands all too well that while presidents come and go, Elvis remains eternal.

Part essay, part photo album, Mr. Strausbaugh's new book, "Alone With the President," cogently examines the convergence of popularity and political power as manifested in U.S. presidents from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.

In fact, the image that stares out from the book's cover reduces that popularity-as-power equation to convenient shorthand: Richard Nixon in a bizarre grip-and-grin shot with Elvis Presley.

"It's the most popular picture of a president ever taken, because it's not a photo of the president," says Mr. Strausbaugh, 42, speaking over the phone from New York City, where he moved in 1990 after having lived in Baltimore virtually his entire life. "It's a photo of Elvis with the president."

Taken just before Christmas in 1970, that photo, plus 15 others of Mr. Nixon and Mr. Presley included in the book, help Mr. Strausbaugh recount the two men's sudden, surreal encounter. Elvis, it seems, wanted a federal narcotics agent's badge for his collection of cop-related paraphernalia -- as Mr. Strausbaugh points out in his book, the badge also would allow Elvis to tote his pistol anywhere in the United States legally -- and was told that the only man who could provide him with one was the president. So he hopped a flight to Washington and dropped in on Mr. Nixon.

The president gave the King a badge. The King gave the president autographed photos of himself, plus a gold-plated .45 pistol and a handful of bullets. A White House photographer snapped away.

"Alone With the President," published by Blast Books, teems with similarly odd presidential photo-ops: the casually elegant (JFK and actor/brother-in-law Peter Lawford cruising on a sloop); the strangely beautiful (Lyndon Johnson and actor Gregory Peck reclining together in a field of black-eyed Susans); the rigidly arranged (Mr. Nixon gesticulating to singer Johnny Cash); the profoundly moving (Gerald Ford and baseball announcer Joe Garagiola pensively watching the '76 presidential election results together on TV); the truly extraterrestrial (Jimmy Carter and artist Andy Warhol stiffly chatting); the damningly telling (Ronald and Nancy Reagan in a makeshift chorus line with actress Shirley Jones and composer Marvin Hamlisch); and the relentlessly ubiquitous (Bob Hope and the Rev.Billy Graham invading every president's Oval Office).

But if these weird celebrity encounters constitute the book's obvious hook, its meat consists of Mr. Strausbaugh's short, trenchant essays on the innate power of imagery and how presidents from Kennedy to Mr. Reagan used it or were used up by it.

As part of his research, Mr. Strausbaugh visited each of the presidents' libraries "and just went with what the photos and reading about the guys and thinking about them made me say."

Accordingly, Mr. Strausbaugh points out that JFK deftly manipulated his image, from his famous first TV debate with Mr. Nixon in 1960 (Kennedy didn't debate, Mr. Strausbaugh says, he performed) to his masterfully orchestrated press conferences. JFK lived out his father's credo: It's not what a person is that counts, but what the public thinks he is. And Kennedy's crafty molding of his own image led the public to think of him as a star.

In his chapter on Kennedy, Mr. Strausbaugh writes that "JFK entered the White House looking like a glamorous movie star, became a TV star while he was there, and went out as a semidivine hero of popular mythology."

Successively, Johnson, Mr. Nixon, Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter wrestled with the reality of popularity as power -- none more brilliantly than Mr. Nixon, whose handlers honed sound-bite/photo-op politics to a calculated art form.

Pure image

Then came Mr. Reagan.

"At that point," Mr. Strausbaugh says, "you had the apotheosis of celebrity in the White House. Reagan was the first president -- and so far the only one -- who was pure image. It made a nice arc to start with Kennedy and follow that apotheosis of celebrity through to Reagan. Liberals like to go on and on and on about what a redneck he was and awful Republican and conservative and just a TV star, but in a lot of ways he represents a culmination of stuff their hero John Kennedy had started."

LBJ lusted after the Kennedy luster, but merely chased it. Johnson felt uneasy with celebrities, and Mr. Strausbaugh's book reminds us of LBJ's brushes with vacuous actor George Hamilton (who briefly romanced Johnson's daughter, Lynda) and his clash with singer/actress Eartha Kitt, who turned a White House luncheon with Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, into an indictment of the president's policies.

Mr. Strausbaugh says that Jimmy Carter's presidency unraveled his appealing outsider image evaporated. In "Alone With the President," Mr. Carter flashes the same frozen, forced, mile-wide smile at everyone: Warhol, Willie Nelson, the Pope, mime Marcel Marceau. He almost always appears ill at ease.

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