It’s the most requested item in the US National Archives – more popular than the photos of the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The iconic image shows the meeting between the president and the King: the real-life encounter between Elvis Presley and President Nixon in the Oval Office in December, 1970.
The facts of the encounter seem stranger than fiction. A satirical film based on the events, starring Kevin Spacey as Nixon and Michael Shannon as Elvis will be released in April, billed as “the true story you won’t quite believe”.
On a flight to Washington DC, Elvis – who rarely wrote – requested notepaper and proceeded to pen a letter to the president, offering “any service I can to help the country out” and requesting to be made “a federal agent at large”.
The film is billed as ‘the true story you won’t quite believe’
That morning Elvis delivered the letter to the White House in person, where it made it into the hands of Nixon aide (and Elvis fan) Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh. A meeting was set up for 12.30 that day.
Elvis appeared at noon, wearing a flared jumpsuit, a large gold belt buckle and sunglasses. He carried a gift for the president: a Colt .45 pistol from his private collection.
Krogh, who documented the meeting and later wrote a book on the encounter, described in his notes how Elvis showed off his badges to the president before stating “that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit”. The president gave his opinion that “those who use drugs are also at the vanguard of anti-American protest”.
Then Elvis explained the real reason for his visit: his desire for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The singer was a collector of police badges and believed this one would give him the special powers and freedom of a federal agent. Nixon granted his wish for a badge, and the meeting concluded with, as Krogh described it, “a surprising, spontaneous gesture”, as Elvis put his arm around the president and hugged him.
Today the photos and other artefacts from the meeting are available to view in a National Archives exhibition online. But what is it about this one image that sparked such interest and holds such an enduring appeal?
“The reason the photo resonates with the public is due in part to the reputation of Richard Nixon as someone unaware of pop culture icons of this time,” explains Gregory Cumming, Resource Archivist and Staff Historian at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “It’s the incongruity that people find so fascinating,” adds art historian Kelly Grovier, “the symbol of all things cool meeting the symbol of all things cold and calculating.”
But despite their differences, an affinity was struck between the two men that continued after that day. Elvis’ friend and long-term aide Jerry Schilling, who accompanied him to the Oval Office, saw a bond between the pair, describing the encounter as “two people who had been at the top of their careers… they identified with being lonely at the top… and they hit it off against all odds.”
It’s the symbol of all things cool meeting the symbol of all things cold and calculating – Kelly Grovier
As US cultural icons, both men have been repeatedly immortalised, spoofed and mimicked on TV and in film, from Oliver Stone’s Nixon to X-Men and The Simpsons. It’s clear from the trailer for the upcoming film, Elvis & Nixon, that the film-makers are playing for laughs – honing in on the incongruity and implausibility of the encounter.
“Nothing else like this photograph exists. Nowhere else will you find a photo of the President of the United States and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” says Gregory Cumming. “Its treasure lies in its uniqueness.”
Kelly Grovier is surprised that the famous photo’s clash of styles and personalities should have caused such a fuss. “[It] beckons from an earlier cultural consciousness when celebrity and politics weren't nearly so intermingled” he explains. So what would make for an equally striking photo today?
“Far more shocking to imagine than a photo of Elvis and Nixon in the White House is a picture of Donald Trump by himself in the Oval Office,” Grovier suggests. “Trump as president is like the unimaginable fusion of the antitheses that the Elvis/Nixon photo implies: the showman turned president and vice versa.”
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