Thursday, October 22, 2015
Presley Garners Another Badge, Thanks to Richard Nixon
By ROGER M. GRACE
Nineteenth in a Series
On Dec. 21, 1970, the “king” and the president, two internationally known figures, both Capricornians but studies in contrast—the uptight Richard Nixon and the unrestrained Elvis Presley—met. It was to be a secret meeting but Nixon, whose regard for providing a record of events for posterity (which two months later prompted him to have voice-activated taping equipment installed in the Oval Office) had photographs taken—28 of them.
With the meeting being held about six hours after Presley had presented a letter at the gate to the White House requesting a get-together, aide Bud Krogh had hastily prepared an “agenda”—or “talking points.” They were: discussing prospects of Presley working with White House staff; narrating a television special to educate parents as to drug themes in rock lyrics; encouraging “fellow artists to develop a new rock musical theme, ‘Get High on Life’”; recording an album with that theme at the federal narcotic rehabilitation and research facility in Lexington, Ken.’ and being a “consultant to the Advertising Council on how to communicate anti-drug messages to youth.”
Presley had his own agenda, with one item on it: inveigling the president to authorize a narcotics agent badge for him.
Krogh—who was at the meeting—recounts on PBS’s “Frontline” that Nixon and Presley “had a really weird discussion about a lot of things that had nothing to do with the talking points I had written.” He goes on to say:
And then the real reason for the trip finally came out as Elvis said, “Mr. President, can you get me a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs?” And the president looked and he said, “Bud, can we get him a badge?” And I said, “Well, Mr. President, if you want to get him a badge, we can do that.” He said, “Well, get him a badge.”
Well, Elvis was so happy about this, he steps around the side of the desk and he goes over and he grabs him. And one of my abiding memories while thinking, “This is probably the last thing I’ll ever do in the Oval Office,” was Elvis Presley hugging Richard Nixon, who’s sort of standing there looking up, thinking, “Oh, my God!”…And they parted. And then Elvis asked if he could bring in his bodyguards, to which the president said, “Bud, do we have time for that?” And I thought, “You’re this far into it, why not finish it off?” So, I said, “Yes, sir, you’ve got a few more minutes.”
So [his body guards] came in and, and the president shook hands with them and told Elvis, “You’ve got some big ones here, Elvis.” And he said, “Yes,” and the president went behind his desk, and opened up the bottom drawer to give them each a gift. Well, Elvis just sensed that there was a lot of stuff in that drawer. So he went behind the desk and, as the president is taking out the cufflinks and the paperweights and the golf balls, Elvis is reaching in towards the back of the drawer and taking out the real gold stuff, the valuable presents—because they were sort of lined up in order of expense, or cost. The higher the roller, the more expensive the present.
Then came an utterance by Presley epitomizing gall. As Krogh recalls the words: “Mr. President, they have wives.” He was asking for more gifts.
Nixon “dived back into the drawer again and out come the presents for the wives,” Krogh says.
Notwithstanding Presley’s pushiness, Nixon, in recounting the meeting, says in a 1990 television interview:
“Well, he was very flamboyant. My daughters knew him and heard him. I didn’t know that much about him except what I read. But as I talked to him, I sensed that basically he’s a very shy man. Flamboyance was covering up the shyness. He was also a very sincere man. He wanted to be an example to young people.”
Departing the Oval Office, Krogh phoned John Finlator, acting head of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, to tell him to get a badge made, pronto. Finlator had earlier in the day said “no” to Presley’s badge request. Krogh then took Presley, Schilling and West to lunch in the White House mess. They returned to Krogh’s office, Finlator arrived, and, as Jack Anderson tells it in a column:
“When Finlator finally handed Presley the badge and promised to issue him ‘consultant’ credentials, the singer was overcome with emotion, and his eyes became misty.”
Krogh notes that Presley “felt that he’d been given more authority than the badge really suggested,” remarking:
“This was just an honorary badge, but he took it like he’d been given a real agent’s badge.
Presley thought—or pretended—that it was real. Nothing appearing on it indicated that it was “just an honorary badge.”
President Richard M. Nixon poses in the Oval Office with entertainer Elvis Presley on Dec. 21, 1970. This is the best known of the 28 shots that were taken by White House staff photographer Oliver F. Atkins. In the December 2010 issue of Smithsonian, Peter Carlson notes in his article, “All Shook Up”: “In 1988, years after Nixon resigned and Elvis died of a drug overdose, a Chicago newspaper reported that the National Archives was selling photos of the meeting, and within a week, some 8,000 people requested copies, making the pictures the most requested photographs in Archives history.” Although the photos are offered for sale on eBay, the images can be downloaded, free of cost, from the National Archives website.
As previously noted here, he had actual badges, many of them, from law enforcement agencies across the nation. In the 2007 biography, “Elvis Presley: A Life,” Bobbie Ann Mason observes:
“The special-agent badge extended Elvis’s sense of authority even further. He loved sporting the badge, along with his other police badges. As a narc cop, he felt he was above the law.”
Gary Tillery says in his 2013 book, “The Seeker King: A Spiritual Biography of Elvis Presley”:
“Not aware the badge was only honorary, Elvis would wield it on several occasions over the next few years to establish his crime-fighting credentials. He tried to get his three stepbrothers, who were still in high school, to report any drug use they observed to him so he could arrest the perpetrators.”
He notes that the youths were unwilling to incur enmity of their classmates by complying with Presley’s request.
Tillery remarks Presley’s “most dramatic use of the federal badge came when he discovered that a recent addition to his entourage had abused his trust.” The incident is said to have occurred in Las Vegas in 1973, and involved James Caughley, Presley’s valet, who ran errands—such as going out for hamburgers for Presley at late night hours. He was dubbed “Hamburger James.”
Rick Stanley, Presley’s half brother, says in an Aug. 21, 1989 article in “People Magazine”:
“Well, I’m in Elvis’s suite one day, and he yells out to me from his bathroom that somebody had been in his kit. He said some things were missing, some money and some pictures. Well, we all ran all over the place, and the only person we couldn’t find was Hamburger James.
Presley’s DEA badge.
“Elvis was more than mad. He was in a wild rage. And it spread to everybody. See, Elvis also had some pictures in the kit. I didn’t look at them. I think they were pictures of Priscilla. Hamburger James took some of them too. So Elvis was hot. Man, was he hot. And everybody’s running around looking for Hamburger James. And somebody says, ‘I’ll bet he’s at the airport.’ ”
“Elvis What Happened?” is a 1977 book containing recollections of former Presley bodyguards Red West, his cousin, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler, as told to Steve Dunleavy. It sets forth that Presley, Red West, and a hotel security guard sped to the airport, with Sonny West following in another car. When Presley and those in the car got there, a plane was about to take off.
Red West is quoted as saying that Presley “raced out on the damn tarmac as the plane was taxiing for a takeoff” and “just ran right up to the cockpit, and he flashed his badge that President Nixon gave him.”
The boarding ramp was lowered and Presley got on the plane, only to find that Hamburger James wasn’t there.
Tillery describes Presley hailing the plane, then mentions:
“Sonny West meanwhile had arrived in a separate car and found the fugitive in the terminal. He dragged him out to the car and opened the man’s briefcase, where he found a $20,000 ring Elvis had been given for setting an [audience] attendance record. Elvis came upon them, assessed the situation, and tried to recite the Miranda rights to the suspect. But his memory failed halfway through. They took the man back to his hotel room and Elvis gave him a tongue-lashing and let him go, never to see him again.”
There are differing versions of what happened. Marty Lacker, personal aide to Presley, says in an interview on elvisinfonet.com:
“Elvis had some personal photos of Priscilla that he took and when James left to go back to Memphis, Elvis noticed them missing. Elvis, Red and Sonny went to the Vegas airport and pulled James off the plane and then discovered not only the pictures but two of Elvis’ rings. James was told not to come back.”
Stanley—who was not at the airport according to the ex-bodyguards’ account—places himself there and says:
“Elvis runs up to the girl at the gate desk and starts yelling, ‘Stop that plane! Stop that plane! She ignores him for a second or two, and then she starts to get a little hysterical and screams, ‘I can’t, I can’t!’ Then Elvis pulls out a police badge, one of the bunch that he had been given over the years, and flashes it at her and yells, ‘I’m a federal officer. I said stop that plane!’….
“I never did understand why, but the plane stopped and pulled back up to the gate. They opened the door, and Elvis’s bodyguards ran down the aisles and there, in the back, was old Hamburger James, all huddled down and hiding.”
In the end, Presley did not aid the administration in its anti-drug program. He recorded no album with a “Get High on Life” theme, narrated no documentary. Those, of course, were Krogh’s ideas—but Presley came up with no ideas of his own to fulfill the commitment he made in the letter he scribbled on a plane ride to Washington, resulting in the president granting him an audience. Nixon had been duped by Presley’s declaration of his selfless intent; his driving objective was simply to obtain a badge.
As Schilling gently phrases it in his book, “the government never put Elvis to any use as an agent.” He notes, however, that “a representative of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs would call him every six months to make sure that he still had the federal badge in his possession.”
Some speculate that Presley was high on drugs when he met with the president. His impetuously hugging Nixon lends credence to that notion.
“When Elvis walked into the Oval Office, he was high as a kite,” Albert Goldman asserts in the 1981 book, “Elvis,” adding:
“He had cranked up on speed for this great moment.”
However, a Dec. 21, 1995 article in Memphis’s Commercial Appeal quotes Schilling as saying:
“At that time, Elvis was not heavily into prescription drugs.”
It might well be assumed that if there had been distinct outward indications of Presley being under the influence of drugs, he would not have been admitted to the Oval Office.
Presley died Aug. 16, 1977, as the result of long-term abuse of prescribed—overly prescribed—drugs.
His federal narcotics agent badge is on display at Graceland. And the colt .45 pistol he brought for the president—which had to be left at the gate—is on display at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company