On this day in 1970, rock star Elvis Presley is greeted at the White House by President Richard M. Nixon. Presley’s visit was not just a social call: He wanted to meet Nixon in order to offer his services in the government’s war on drugs.
Three weeks earlier, Presley, who wanted to distance himself from rock-and-roll’s unseemly association with drug use and the counterculture, had met Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, in Palm Springs, California and offered to use his celebrity status to help promote the administration’s anti-drug campaign. Presley then flew to Washington, checking into a hotel under an alias on December 20. The next day, he and two of his bodyguards proceeded to the White House gates, where Presley handed the guard a handwritten letter. In the letter, Presley told Nixon he did not associate or agree with the “Drug Culture, hippie elements,” student protesters and “Black Panthers,” whom he believed hated America. He declared that he wanted nothing but to “help the country out” and asked to be designated a “federal agent-at-large.”
The guard immediately recognized Presley, but followed protocol and asked for permission to send him on to the White House. He apparently was not searched before being granted admission: Upon meeting Nixon he presented the president with a gift–a World War II-era Colt .45 pistol. The two were photographed shaking hands, Nixon in a conservative suit and tie and Elvis wearing tight purple velvet pants and an open-collared shirt with jeweled chains, a purple velvet cape slung over his shoulders and an enormous belt buckle. Nixon and “The King” exchanged pleasantries and agreed that “those who use drugs are in the vanguard of American protest.” Presley again reiterated his desire to do whatever he could to help influence young people and fellow musicians to reject drugs and anti-Americanism. At the conclusion of the brief meeting, Presley surprised Nixon with a hug.
On December 31, Nixon wrote a thank-you note to Presley for the gift of the pistol and for visiting him at the White House. He said nothing about enlisting Presley’s aid in the war on drugs, however. The administration’s ambivalence about the idea was illustrated in his aides’ correspondence at the time. In an inter-office White House memo dashed off the morning of December 21, the day of Presley’s impromptu White House visit, Nixon’s aide Dwight Chapin suggested that Elvis not be “pushed off on the vice president,” but be introduced directly to Nixon. He further noted that if Nixon wanted to meet “bright young people outside the Government, Presley might be the one to start with.” Aide H.R. Haldeman responded: “you must be kidding.” In the end, Nixon never offered Elvis an official position in his administration’s war on drugs.
Presley died from heart failure in 1977, which the coroner’s report said was due to “undetermined causes.” Speculation abounded, however, that his death was caused by a lethal mix of a variety of prescription drugs and obesity.