The U.S. archives' greatest hit

SUN JOURNAL

Image: A photo of the 1970 meeting between Richard M. Nixon and Elvis Presley is the most requested document of the National Archives.

January 13, 2002|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Where to begin the strange story? In December 1970, Elvis Presley is flying from Memphis to Washington, D.C., on American Airlines and asks a stewardess for writing paper. He proceeds to write a five-page letter to President Richard M. Nixon and personally delivers it at the northwest gate of the White House on the morning of Dec. 21.

The letter results in an Oval Office meeting between the King and the president. Years later, a photograph of them shaking hands becomes the most requested document of the National Archives and Records Administration, outstripping requests for a photo of the USS Arizona being blown up at Pearl Harbor.

Nixon, though yet to be forced out of office under threat of impeachment, is already the embodiment of the dark side of politics for many Americans. Presley, long edged aside by the Beatles, is the embodiment of Las Vegas. Apparently, they can use each other.

Two worlds, both in decline, are about to meet - the politician who made Communist-baiting pay and the Mississippi boy who rode rock 'n' roll to glory. But the meeting will live on, to the deep pleasure of archivists of the past and Internet users of the future.

In the letter, Presley tells Nixon that the drug culture doesn't view him as part of the establishment and that he can use his standing to serve the country. He wants the president to make him a Federal Agent at Large.

"I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques," he writes, "and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good."

In two years, 18-year-olds will be eligible to vote in the presidential election for the first time. Nixon aides invite Elvis, age 35, over.

"If the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the Government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with," appointments secretary Dwight L. Chapin says in a memo to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman.

"You must be kidding," Haldeman writes next to that paragraph. But he approves the meeting.

A memo is prepared offering the president talking points - "98 percent of the young people between 12 and 17 listen to the radio," says one. Elvis arrives, bearing a World War II-era pistol as a gift for Nixon. His attire is shocking - this is, after all, the White House in 1970 - and Egil Krogh, a Nixon aide, later describes it in a book:

"He was wearing tight-fitting dark velvet pants, a white silky shirt with very high collars and open to below his chest, a dark purple velvet cape, a gold medallion, and heavy silver-plated amber-tinted designer sunglasses with `EP' built into the nose bridge. Around his waist was a belt with a huge four-inch by six-inch gold belt buckle with a complex design I couldn't make out without embarrassing myself."

Another memo reports on the meeting: Presley tells Nixon the Beatles have been a force for anti-American spirit. The president nods in agreement. "Violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people," Nixon says.

Many photographs later, the meeting ends.

About six years ago, the National Security Archive put a photograph of Nixon and Presley shaking hands that day on its Web site (www.gwu.edu~nsarchiv/). That got attention, enough that Yahoo named it Web site of the week.

The National Security Archive is an independent research institute and library located at the George Washington University in the District of Columbia. The archive collects and publishes declassified documents that it acquires through the Freedom of Information Act.

Like the many, many people who have requested copies, the people who work for the archive love the photograph.

Thomas Blanton, director of the archive, says he and his staff often use it when they give workshops on the Freedom of Information Act. "It's an incredibly useful tool to reach kids," he says. "It gets people into using primary sources."

In fact, he says, the memos relating to the meeting were declassified and made available to the public after a young National Security Archive staffer saw the photograph some years ago and said to himself, "If there's a White House meeting, there are documents about it." He filed requests and got the documents. The photo and memos remain on the National Security Archive Web site.

The memos - and 28 photographs - are also on the Web site of the National Archives and Records Agency (www.nara.gov), the government agency that has custody of the entire package.

The National Archives has 9 million photographs in its collection, says Susan Cooper, a spokesman for the agency, and for some time the Nixon-Presley one has been the most requested. The requests might have dwindled in recent years, she says, because many people simply download it from the Web. "I think it's kind of fun for the public to see the president meeting someone as unlikely as a pop star," she says.

After the meeting with Nixon, Presley and his two bodyguards had lunch with Krogh at the White House. That afternoon, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs gave him a badge making him an honorary agent. Elvis added it to his badge collection.

The Colt .45 that Presley gave Nixon is in the collection of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif. Nixon died April 22, 1994, at the age of 81.

Elvis could not overcome his troubles with alcohol and drugs. He died Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42.

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