Rock and roll icon Elvis Presley may have died 34 years ago today at age 42, but his legacy lives on to this day — at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.
The King didn’t just make waves in music and pop culture, he also had political impact. Pamla Eisenberg, an audio visual technician at the Nixon Library, said that the picture of Elvis meeting with then-President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970, shown above, is the most-requested photograph for reproduction and most popular exhibit in the museum itself.
“It’s one of those iconic moments from the middle to end of the 20th century that bridged ultra-conservatism with wild rock and roll,” Eisenberg said of the fascination the picture holds. “It’s one of those iconic images that speaks louder than itself. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this one certainly is…it’s so kitschy and so wild, like those Venus de Milo lamps with a clock in the middle. It defies analysis. It’s just a stellar moment.”
Nixon and Elvis were an unlikely coupling with an even more unlikely backstory leading up to their meeting.
Elvis initiated contact with the president, writing him a letter on American Airlines stationery, beginning, “First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office.” He went on to ask if he could help in the country’s war on drugs, and be credentialed as a federal agent.
“Sir I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out,” he wrote.
Nixon’s aides scheduled him for a meeting in the Oval Office, and the two discussed the Beatles, the war on drugs and how Elvis may be able to reach kids with an anti-drug message, by “just singing,” as Elvis put it.
“Presley indicated to the President in a very emotional manner that he was ‘on your side’,” the White House record of the meeting reads. “He also mentioned that he was studying Communist brainwashing and drug culture for over ten years.”
Elvis gave the president a Colt 45 pistol and some Presley family photographs, and Elvis received a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, but didn’t actually ever work with the White House.
Eisenberg said that the Elvis paraphernalia at the museum is so popular that there is a life-size cutout of Elvis and the president to take pictures with in the lobby, and the gift shop offers several Elvis-related items, including a tube of chapstick with the famous photograph emblazoned on the tube.
Besides the contrast between ultra-conservative Nixon and the flamboyant rock star Elvis, Eisenberg had another explanation for the image’s popularity.
“Well, he was the King,” she said.
Image courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
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