Monday, October 19, 2015
Elvis Presley: The Man Who Flimflammed President Nixon
By ROGER M. GRACE
Eighteenth in a Series
Elvis Presley was a con artist…a Bret Maverick who wiggled. He was a finagler. A guy who thought that, through guile, personality, and the prestige of his super-celebrity image, he could get anyone to accommodate his desire.
Largely, he was right.
“He was truly a master at manipulating people,” actress Priscilla Presley says in her book, “Elvis and Me.” She should know, having been married to him from 1967-73, and having lived with him (platonically) for six years before that.
Presley aide/bodyguard Jerry Schilling’s view, expressed on the 1985 TV special, “Elvis Memories,” is that “nobody could really say no to Elvis.”
Bobbie Ann Mason in “Elvis Presley,” terms the subject of her 2007 unimaginatively titled book, “profligate, manipulative, self-indulgent.”
One of those Presley finessed and duped was President Richard M. Nixon...who could stand up quite well to world leaders, but became Presley’s pawn.
The tale of events leading up to the entertainer’s meeting with the chief executive in the Oval Office on Dec. 21, 1970, has often been told, but perhaps this account will bring together fragments not previously joined.
It started with an argument. Presley’s father and wife undertook to confront the super-star one day at Graceland over his extravagance. He was incensed, stormed out of the house, drove to the airport sans the usual accompaniment of bodyguards, flew to Washington, D.C., bounced to Los Angeles, then—joined by childhood friend Schilling, who had been employed in the past by Presley and would be in the future—returned to the capital.
On the eastbound red-eye flight from L.A., Presley learned that U.S. Sen. George Murphy, R-Calif., was a fellow passenger, and went back to talk with him, telling of his desire for a federal narcotics badge. As London’s “Daily Mail” recites in its Aug. 15, 2013 edition:
“[Murphy] suggested the rock star write to the President offering his services in the war on illicit drugs. Elvis, he suggested, could appeal to young Americans the way a Washington senator never could.”
The article notes that although Presley had “a serious problem with the prescription drugs, such as barbiturates, which were later to help kill him, Elvis had been expressing public concern about drug abuse by the young.”
In flight, Presley scribbled out a five-page letter to Nixon, one in which he attempted to butter up the chief executive by telling of his admiration for him, expressed an eagerness to help in the anti-drug fight…and happened to mention his desire for federal credentials.
Here’s the letter (as punctuated and capitalized by Presley):
Dear Mr. President,
First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and Have Great Respect for your office. I talked to Vice President agnew in Palm Springs 3 weeks ago and expressed my Concern for our Country. The Drug Culture, The Hippie Elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as Their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I Love it. Sir I can and Will be of any Service that I can to help The Country out I have no concern or Motives other than helping the Country out. So I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position, I can and will do more good if I were Made a Federal Agent at Large, and I will help out by doing it My way through my communications with people of all ages. First and Foremost I am an entertainer, but All I need is the Federal credentials. I am on this Plane with Senator George Murphy and We have been discussing the problems that our Country is faced with.
First page of Elvis Presley’s letter to President Nixon.
So, I am Staying at the Washington hotel Room 505 - 506 - 507 - I have 2 men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. 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
I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very Private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today tonight or Tomorrow I was nominated this coming year one of America’s Ten Most outstanding young men. That will be in January 18 in my Home Town of Memphis Tenn. I am sending you the short autobiography about myself so you can better understand This approach. I would Love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not to Busy.
P.S. I believe that you Sir were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America also.
I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.
The letter was placed in this envelope:
The envelope indicates that Murphy would be bringing it to the president. Schilling, in his book, “Me and a Guy Named Elvis,” says that “[b]y the time we landed in Washington and climbed into a limo, Elvis had changed his mind” about having Murphy deliver the letter, and instructed that the driver go to the White House. There, he personally handed the envelope to a security guard at the northwest gate at about 6:30 a.m.
A distinct possibility is that Presley wrote “via Sen George Murphy” assuming that his wish, being his wish, would be carried out by the senator, only to find that the actor-turned-politico was not about to play the role of a messenger boy. Murphy had an ego that rivaled Presley’s. He was one of the many Hollywood luminaries who, in the 1950s, attended Sunday gatherings at the Bel-Air home of my aunt and the scoundrel she married (who swindled Doris Day out of her fortune, and wound up being disbarred). When Murphy pontificated in the living room of the house of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jerry, if someone there started a side conversation, he would stop speaking, disdainfully glaring at the person who had so impudently detracted from his discourse until the offender ceased speaking or left. I had a conversation with Murphy at a political rally in 1964 in which he (who lost roles because of conservative leanings) proclaimed his utter superiority as an actor over Larry Parks (who portrayed Al Jolson in two biographical films but was then blacklisted after admitting he had once been a member of the Communist Party).
Presley and Schilling checked into the Hotel Washington where they awaited a response to the letter left at the White House. (I’m referring to the actual White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where the recently confirmed Court of Appeal Justice Lamar Baker falsely claims to have worked, not the building next door at 1650 Pennsylvania Ave. where he did have an office.) They were soon joined by Presley’s bodyguard West, who had arrived on a flight from Memphis.
The letter wound up on the desk of the deputy assistant to the president for domestic affairs, Egil “Bud” Krogh, whose duties included serving as liaison to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (“BNDD”). (He later became a Watergate figure, going to prison for ordering the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.)
Here’s Krogh’s recitation of what happened next, as told by him on PBS’s “Frontline” program which aired Oct. 10, 2000:
I got a call from [scheduler] Dwight Chapin, who was one of my best friends on the White House staff. And he said, “The King is here.” And I said, “King who?” I looked at the President’s schedule and said, “There aren’t any kings on the president’s schedule.” He said, “No, not just any two-bit king, the real king. The King of Rock—Elvis. He’s right here in Washington and he wants to see the president.” And I thought that was just an elaborate practical joke....We did those things in those days….But he sent over a letter that he said had been written by Elvis Presley, asking to meet with the president to help him with the drug problem....
In about an hour, through the [Office of Management and Budget] security office of the Oval Executive Office building I get a call saying that ‘Elvis Presley is here with his two bodyguards.’ And they came down the hall to my office and he really was Elvis Presley, dressed in a purple jumpsuit and a white shirt open to the navel with a big gold chain and thick-rimmed sunglasses. And he came in and I must say, I was very impressed with him. I had been a big fan of his during the 1950s. He proceeded to tell me about how much he felt for his country. He wanted to help the country, to do what he could. He felt he had an obligation because he’d been given so much. He talked about serving in the military, and felt that that was his duty.
And I thought, “Well, you know, this guy seems to be saying the things that that Richard Nixon would like to hear, so let’s see if we can’t set up a meeting.” So I wrote a memo to the president suggesting some talking points and…Dwight Chapin wrote a memo to then-Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, to get approval for this meeting.
Presley returned to the hotel with Schilling. In her book, Priscilla Presley says her husband “was promised the letter would be given to President Nixon by nine that morning.”
But he didn’t stay put to receive a possible phone call in response to his request. The actress recites:
Elvis then had Jerry arrange for him to see John Finlator, Deputy Narcotics Director in Washington. Elvis truly wanted to help kids get off street drugs. Another purpose of Elvis’s trip was to try to acquire a Federal Narcotics badge for himself.
…In Elvis’s mind that badge would give him the right to carry any prescribed drug he had on his person. The badge would also give Elvis and his Memphis Mafia the right to carry arms. With the Federal Narcotics badge he could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.
His obsession with obtaining this badge was triggered by a private eye named John O’Grady whom Elvis had hired to handle a paternity suit. O’Grady showed Elvis his Federal Narc badge, and Elvis’s mind started clicking immediately: How could he get one himself? O’Grady mentioned that John Finlator was the man Elvis should see.
The public knew nothing about the meeting between Nixon and Presley for more than a year after it occurred. A Jan. 27, 1972, Washington Merry-Go-Round column by Jack Anderson reveals Presley’s visit to the Oval Office.
It also tells of Presley’s interplay with Finlator (who was temporary director of the BNDD). Although the general impression is that the meeting with Finlator was impromptu, Anderson draws a different picture, saying that the deputy director had learned of Presley’s support of police departments and “sought to enlist Presley in the anti-drug fight,” inviting him “to the Narcotics Bureau for a quiet visit” and arranging “for the guards to admit him.” The column provides this description of the meeting:
Presley readily agreed to cooperate with the anti-drug campaign and offered on the spot to donate $3,000 to the Narcotics Bureau. Finlator gently declined the money, explaining that the Bureau isn’t permitted to accept donations.
Then Presley showed Finlator some police badges and asked whether he could have one from the Narcotics Bureau. Finlator suggested diplomatically that he try the FBI. But Elvis insisted he wanted a narcotics badge.
“I can’t,” said Finlator apologetically. “I absolutely can’t let you have one.”
Presley’s face fell, then brightened again. He said he had an appointment at the White House. “Would you mind,” he asked, “if I asked President Nixon for a narcotics badge?”
“That’s the only way you’ll ever get it, Elvis,” replied Finlator good humoredly.
I’d been reading stuff about some of the people that worked for Howard Hughes—how they’d be left in a hotel room waiting for some urgent, top-secret call that never came….But about a half hour later, just as I was thinking about keeping my strength up with a room-service order, the phone did ring. It was the White House.
“Mr. Schilling, this is Egil Krogh, of the White House staff. The President has read Mr. Presley’s letter and would like to meet with him in thirty minutes.”
I explained that Mr. Presley wasn’t there at the moment but that I’d get in touch with him and relay the message. I dialed John Finlator’s office number as quickly as I could.
“Hello is—is Mr. Elvis Presley there?”
“Who is this?”
I explained my connection, and in a moment Elvis was on the line….
I told him that the President wanted to see him in twenty-five minutes and counting.
Presley swung by the hotel to pick up Schilling and West and the trio was off to the White House. The meeting, and the aftermath, will be topics of the next column.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company