The photograph, one of the most requested from the National Archives, has left generations of viewers scratching their heads: President Richard M. Nixon — wearing a gray suit with an American flag pin in his lapel — and Elvis Presley — in velvet bell-bottoms and cape, an enormous gold belt buckle at his waist — shaking hands in the White House.
The product of a warped mind and some Photoshop tomfoolery? No, just another moment when truth is stranger than fiction.
But what is that truth? The encounter — the subject of Elvis & Nixon, the film comedy that stars Lexington native Michael Shannon as Presley — took place on Dec. 21, 1970, when the two men, each teetering on the precipice, met in the Oval Office.
Sometime the night before, Presley — incensed by what he considered the moral decline of America — wrote to Nixon requesting a meeting. Flying a commercial red-eye to Washington from Los Angeles and using American Airlines stationery, Presley said he’d been inspired to save the country from the scourge of the Black Panthers, hippies and Students for a Democratic Society (he would later include the Beatles on that list). Now he wanted to be made a federal agent-at-large with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the better to go undercover.
“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,” he wrote. “I am glad to help just so long as it is kept very private.” He delivered the letter to the northwest gate of the White House and went to the Washington Hotel to await an answer.
Presley as an all-American anti-drug activist — what better disguise? (Not incidentally, the entertainer, who had received death threats, believed that the credentials would also allow him to carry firearms — and prescription drugs — at home and abroad.)
The president wouldn’t install his infamous taping system until the following February, leaving a blank space where the men’s words — let alone their emotions — were concerned.
The creators of Elvis & Nixon, which also stars Kevin Spacey as the president, tried to fill it in.
The official documents surrounding the meeting were deliciously surreal, starring Watergate figures who armed the president with narcotics-related talking points and proposed a rock star-led anti-drug campaign called “Get High on Life.”
”If the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the Government, Elvis might be a perfect one to start with,” Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary, wrote in a memo to H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff, who scrawled in the margins, “You must be kidding.”
There were also memoirs by those who were in the room, including Me and a Guy Named Elvis by Jerry Schilling, a longtime friend who accompanied the singer on that trip to Washington.
“Actually, that’s part of what was fascinating — that there’s more realness to the script than I presumed when I first read it,” said the director, Liza Johnson.
Eventually the filmmakers consulted Schilling, who was loath to make an on-screen fool of his friend. But as revisions continued, he softened.
“There were things in that script that said a lot about who Elvis was as a human being,” Schilling said. Before shooting began, he took Shannon to Memphis, where they visited the government project housing where Elvis lived as a child, and privately toured Graceland, “things I’d never shared with anyone else before.”
The resulting portrayal is more essence than impression, enlivened by quirks like Presley’s peculiar laugh, conjured by an actor who only faintly resembles him. (Both Shannon and Spacey channeled their characters without the help of prosthetics.)
The meeting between Presley and Nixon, made public a year later by columnist Jack Anderson, may not be significant as political history, nor did it benefit the president.
“But it’s certainly interesting as cultural history in the sense that it captures a moment of early 1970s America, as the country was so taken with the changes being wrought by the counterculture,” said David Greenberg, the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.
”Here was Elvis, who used to be such a hero to young people, having aligned himself with the Nixon White House on the side of the squares,” Greenberg added.
In a 1990 interview, Nixon recalled Presley’s flamboyance and shyness and took issue with those who criticized his use of drugs.
“I think that he was a very sincere and decent man,” the former president concluded.
Presley got what he wanted: a special assistant’s badge, now in Graceland’s archives.
“It was an important moment in his life,” Schilling said. “I’m not sure how much humor he would find in that or not.”
At the movies
‘Elvis & Nixon’
Rated R for some language. 1:26. Fayette Mall, Hamburg.