The Elvis & Nixon film recently released on DVD, starring Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, is billed as a “comedy” about the infamous meeting between The King of Rock and Roll and President Nixon at the White House. While many will believe that this is an accurate representation of the circumstances surrounding the meeting, there is a chance that the film will be enforcing false stereotypes about Elvis, specifically about his view of The Beatles.
It doesn’t help that actor Michael Shannon, who portrays The King circa 1970, looks nothing like Presley except for the clothes and doesn’t even try to sound like him. Shannon’s voice is too high and doesn’t emit any hint of a Southern accent.
“What do we have on this guy?” Nixon asks his aide in Elvis & Nixon.
“He’s one of the most famous men on this planet,” the aide explains. “Loves guns, hates The Beatles.”
Stop right there!
While it’s true that Elvis did say some disparaging remarks about The Beatles to Nixon, it wasn’t all cut and dried as to what motivated him to say it.
During the plane ride, Presley wrote an impassioned letter to the President requesting a meeting. Written on American Airlines stationery, the five-page letter also expressed Elvis’ desire to help with the war on drugs.
Here’s an excerpt:
“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 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.”
As Jerry Schilling, long-time friend of Elvis who accompanied him on the trip, explained: “He had lived the American dream and wanted desperately to be able to give something back to the land that had made his wonderful life possible. He didn’t consider his years of army duty to have settled the debt. He was going straight to the highest authority in the country to try to find a way to use some of his power in a constructive way.”
The letter, which Presley personally delivered to White House security guards after arriving on a red-eye flight, set off a chain of events that hours later had the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” shaking hands with the most powerful man in the world. Security prevented Presley from presenting the President with his unique gift, a World War II-era Colt 45 pistol, but Nixon’s aides accepted it on his behalf.
At 12:30 pm on December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley was welcomed into the Oval Office of the White House. According to Egil Bud Krogh, Deputy Counsel to the President, who was present at the meeting, Presley quickly began trying to convince Nixon that he was “on his side, that he wanted to be helpful and that he wanted to restore some respect for the flag which was being lost.”
To justify his position, Presley specifically named The Beatles as a threat to America’s youth. The White House meeting notes describe this exchange:
“Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme.
The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest. Violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.”
While Beatles fans may see that as an outright attack on The Fab Four, it is not likely that Elvis had it out for The Beatles. According to Jerry Schilling, Elvis “loved The Beatles.” Schilling explained that Elvis was just trying to look more patriotic to the President and, in effect, used The Beatles as a scapegoat.
In an interview in 1969, Elvis praised The Beatles to a British reporter: “They’re so interesting and so experimental,” Elvis said. “But I liked them particularly when they used to sing ‘She was just seventeen. You know what I mean.'”
Presley gave The Beatles the most flattering compliment of all when he sang several of their songs during his live shows in later years, including “Something” during his 1973 Aloha from Hawaii concert.
Whatever Elvis’ real motive for calling out The Beatles in this historic meeting, the end result was in his favor. Presley received a Federal Agent Narcotics badge from President Nixon.
As The Washington Post reported: “‘See that he gets it,’ the President directed his top enforcement adviser, Egil (Bud) Krogh. Unable to suppress his excitement, Elvis hugged the startled Nixon.”
However, the story doesn’t end there. The film also leaves out the real reason why Elvis wanted to fly to Washington DC in the first place – to see a girlfriend. The idea to meet Nixon was just an afterthought.