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Nixon and the King

January 28, 2007|Swati Pandey

THE NOW well-known photograph of Elvis Presley shaking hands with President Nixon -- the most requested image from the National Archives -- seems to be a study in contrast. The King wears a dark velvet cape and shaggy hair. The president wears a gray suit and a broad smile.

But the two men had much in common, as documents and memorabilia now on display at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda show. As the exhibit notes, their birthdays were one day apart. And each had selfish motives for the meeting, which took place on Dec. 21, 1970. Presley coveted a "Federal Agent at Large" title (though none existed) and matching badge. Nixon's advisors thought it wise to woo soon-to-be-eligible 18-year-old voters (though it seems highly unlikely that many people in that age group actually listened to Elvis).

Both men portrayed themselves as anti-drug crusaders. During the meeting, Nixon linked dissent and protest to violence and drug use, while his advisors, in a memo of "talking points" for the Presley meeting, suggested that the singer should record a "Get High on Life"-themed album and remind youth that "lasting talent is the result of self-motivation and discipline and not artificial chemical euphoria."

Presley, in a personal letter to Nixon written on American Airlines stationery, claimed to "have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques" and believed that he could take the anti-drug crusade to "the hippie elements, the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], Black Panthers." Nixon and Presley agreed during the meeting that the Beatles were "anti-American" (neither seemed to know that the enemies of the state were in the process of breaking up).

But only years after the meeting did their most ironic common trait -- self-destructiveness -- come to light. Nixon, who waxed on to Presley about "credibility," was forced to resign in 1974 as a result of the Watergate scandal. And Presley, the would-be drug warrior, died of an overdose in 1977.

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SWATI PANDEY is a researcher for The Times' editorial pages.

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