In the history of the U.S. presidency, you'd be hard pressed to name anyone who showed up at the gates of the White House unannounced and got a meeting with the Commander in Chief. But Elvis Presley wasn't just anyone.
"I had never heard of it before, and I have never heard of it since," says former Nixon administration staffer Egil "Bud" Krogh, who helped facilitate Presley's famous Dec. 21, 1970, meeting with President Richard Nixon. "It just seemed like everything fell together in a really amazing way. It was an absolutely unique moment, but Elvis was a unique person."
Krogh wrote a small book of the Elvis/Nixon meeting in 1994, and more recently published "Integrity," a volume about the lessons he learned from his role in the Watergate-related scandals of the 1970s. On Monday, Krogh will be in Memphis as part of an Elvis Week panel at Graceland to talk about Presley's visit with Nixon.
For Krogh, the whole thing seemed, at first, like a gag.
"I belonged to a group of guys at the White House who played practical jokes on each other. On that particular morning, (fellow White House staffer) Dwight Chapin called and was telling me 'The King is here.' I'm thinking, 'Yeah, right.' I figured maybe he's hired an impersonator or something — we did elaborate things like that. I didn't believe it until Elvis actually came into my office and my secretary said, 'No, he's really here!'
As Krogh recalls, Presley arrived wearing a purple jumpsuit, a white shirt open to the navel with a big gold chain and thick-rimmed sunglasses. His very presence was unusual, especially given that this was a different, less celebrity-heavy era at the White House.
"Generally speaking, there were no celebrities parading through; there were no sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom, nothing like that. That just didn't happen," says Krogh.
Presley had come to D.C. with his friends/bodyguards Jerry Schilling and Sonny West and arrived at the northwest gate of the White House, wanting to hand-deliver a five-page letter he'd written to President Nixon and the gift of a framed World War II-era Colt pistol. In the letter — available for viewing, along with other documents and photos, at achives.gov — Presley expressed his support for Nixon and offered to help the administration, intimating that he could serve as a bridge to the youth counterculture.
Both Chapin and Krogh felt Elvis could be a helpful and legitimate voice in raising awareness about the dangers of drugs among America's youth. Part of Krogh's duties was to coordinate the development of narcotics control policy. "And on top of that, I was a big fan of Elvis," says Krogh. "Elvis was very sincere in wanting to help out. On an issue like that, the government is credible just so far. You need those who can speak to the issue who are not affiliated with the government."
As Krogh and Chapin set the wheels in motion — sending memos to Nixon's Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman seeking approval for a meeting with Nixon — Elvis and his entourage waited at a nearby hotel.
Krogh drew up a memo of talking points for the meeting, mostly focusing on how Presley could help in terms of spreading the message about the drug problem. There were ideas for a Presley-led anti-drug album and concert, and various other awareness raising efforts.
"I wrote the talking points and, typically, you get it to president and you talk to the guest beforehand and you hope the conversation will track somewhat with the script, but things began to veer off the moment Elvis came into the room."
Just a few hours after he delivered his letter, Presley was being ushered into the Oval Office and shaking hands with Nixon.
As he took in his surroundings, Presley was initially overwhelmed. "It was interesting," says Krogh. "He came in and it hit him, 'Here I am a boy from Tupelo, Miss., standing in the Oval Office meeting the president.' But it took him less than five minutes until he owned the room."
"I was struck by how well the president and Elvis got along," recalls Krogh. "Something obviously happened when they met. Maybe there was some recognition that they had each come from desperately poor backgrounds, that they didn't have anything growing up. And just on the strength of their talent and drive and persistence reached sort of a pinnacle of their respective fields."
At one point, Elvis proudly showed Nixon a pair of cufflinks Vice President Spiro Agnew had given him, as well as the various honorary badges he'd been given by different law enforcement agencies. "It was like show and tell," says Krogh.
Nixon and Presley chatted on many topics — from the difficulties of performing to crowds in Las Vegas to the Beatles. Presley then asked Nixon if he could get a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics. Nixon turned to Krogh and asked if it was possible.
"'Well, Mr. President, if you want to get him a badge, we can do that,'" recalls Krogh. "The President said, 'Well, then, get him a badge.'"
Soon Schilling and West joined the group in the Oval Office. Barely 30 minutes into the meeting, Elvis was so comfortable with the most powerful man in the world that he was digging through Nixon's desk, picking out presidential souvenirs for himself and his friends.
Krogh did manage to secure the honorary badge from the Bureau of Narcotics that Elvis wanted, and the King left Washington happy.
It was 13 months before political columnist Jack Anderson broke the story on the meeting.
"Now that really is amazing. You can't imagine that happening today. Someone like Elvis Presley meets the President, has lunch and walks around and not a word came out about it. I mean, top secret stuff flows out of the White House, but not a peep about Elvis for over a year."
Despite Krogh's hope to involve Elvis in a drug awareness program and grand plans for a related concert and album, nothing further came from Presley's visit.
"We were never really able to follow up, which was one of my great disappointments," says Krogh. "We wanted to continue, but we just didn't know how to go about it, I think."
Nixon and Presley did remain in contact, however, exchanging phone calls in later years.
Mostly, the meeting remains a curious footnote in presidential history. It's been the subject of books and even a film, and remains a fond reminiscence for those, like Krogh, who got to experience a remarkable meeting of two of American giants.
"Well, I can honestly tell you," says Krogh, "that was the one completely fun day I had as a member of the White House staff."
Elvis Insiders Conference
Monday, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. on the Elvis Week Main Stage at the Entertainment Pavilion, Graceland. Special guests, including Egil “Bud” Krogh and Jerry Schilling, videos and more. Tickets are $35. For more information and a complete schedule of events, go to elvis.com.