Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Elvis and the American Dream

Heather Cox Richardson

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley showed up at the gates of the White House with two bodyguards and handed the guards a letter addressed to President Nixon. He said he knew the president was busy, but was hoping he could say a quick hello and present the president with a gift.

One can only imagine the flurry of astonished commentary in the White House when news arrived that Elvis wanted to drop in for a chat. An aide skimmed Elvis’s letter and sent a quick memo to Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. “The thrust of Presley’s letter is that he wants to become a ‘Federal agent at large’ to work against the drug problem. . . . Drug culture types, the hippie elements, the SDS, and the Black Panthers are people with whom he can communicate since he is not part of the establishment.” The aide warned that it would be a bad idea to push Elvis off on the Vice President, since “it will take very little of the President’s time and it can be extremely beneficial for the President to build some rapport with Presley.”

While the aide was right that Presley wanted a federal badge, the thrust of his letter was not that he could talk to members of the counterculture. The gist of his note was that, more than anything, he wanted legitimacy. Elvis wanted to achieve the American Dream—not to be rich and famous (although he certainly was), but to be respectable.

Elvis had been an enormously talented young man with pretty moderate ambitions, in part because his horizons were so limited that he couldn’t see beyond stability and respectability. He wanted to take care of his parents; he wanted a job and a nice house. When his career took off, he bought Graceland, and decorated it in the fanciest way he could imagine—not with fine antiques and expensive art, but with a wall of mirrors and a carpeted ceiling.

Elvis seemed to be the epitome of the American dream. And perhaps he was, but not in the way that concept is usually used. As Elvis’s career went upward, his control over his success sloped inversely downward. Elvis’s life made it clear that even a man with such superlative talent could never rise to security without an education and connections. He took his financial advice from his father, a man who went to jail for altering a $4 check. He took career advice from a manager who was taking 50% of his earnings by the time the singer died (the going rate was 10%) and who pushed him constantly to make more and more money. By 1970, Elvis’s talent had become a commodity over which he had little control. Rather than enabling him to achieve the American dream, his ability was destroying him. His grueling schedule had him increasingly dependent on prescription drugs, and his marriage was falling apart.

What Elvis wrote to Nixon was that he craved solid middle-class respectability. “I . . . admire you and have great respect for your office,” he wrote. Countercultural figures might call the president and his advisors “the establishment,” but “I call it American and I love it.” “I can and I will be of any service that I can to help the country out,” Elvis wrote. He and President Nixon had something in common, and the singer made sure to point it out: “I was nominated this coming year one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men,” “I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America also.”

Well over a hundred of Elvis’s records had gone gold, platinum, or multi-platinum, but when Elvis met with President Nixon at 12:30, he felt obliged to explain to the president who he was. And he didn’t focus on his music; he focused on the law, respectability, family, government. The first thing the singer did was to show the president his collection of police badges. He gave President Nixon some Presley family photos and a commemorative WWII Colt 45, and warned him that the Beatles had been fomenting anti-Americanism.

Then, as the White House notes from the meeting relate:

“Presley indicated to the President in a very emotional manner that he was ‘on your side.’ Presley kept repeating that he wanted to be helpful, that he wanted to restore some respect for the flag which was being lost. He mentioned that he was just a poor boy from Tennessee who had gotten a lot from his country, which in some way he wanted repay. . . . At the conclusion of the meeting, Presley again told the President how much he supported him, and then, in a surprising, spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around the President and hugged him.”

Nixon’s people managed to get Presley a special badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The badge was a symbol of what Elvis wanted, but it couldn’t give him the middle-class respectability that was at the center of his American dream. It couldn’t buy him the economic understanding that would enable him to rearrange his business affairs, or admission to a professional culture of lawyers and agents whose knowledge would protect him from his parasitic manager.

Ironically, it also couldn’t stop Elvis from dying of drugs only seven years later, sad proof that all the talent in the world could not produce success if it were not protected by education and connections.


Randall said...

Heather: Great post! I like to use this meeting in my modern America course to illustrate the appeal of Nixon and the New Right in the early 1970s.

I think the episode also reveals Elvis's intense good-ole-boy patriotism and his interesting political/social self conception. Elvis was an enormous fan of J. Edgar Hoover. Peter Guralnick gets into the Right side of Elvis a bit in his excellent Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.

It says something else about the generational, regional dynamic, too. Elvis was only 5 years older than John Lennon, and not much older than his hippie contemporaries, but the King was about as far away from them as humanly possible in a political and personal sense.

No wonder that when the Beatles met Elvis in Bel Air in 1965 it was awkward and bizarre. The Beatles commented on how isolated Elvis seemed. Stunted, really, surrounded as he always was by his Memphis Mafia cronies.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Not only does this illustrate the generational and political differences among cultural icons in the middle of the twentieth century, but I wonder what it shows about the way views of the office of president have changed. This is out of my area, but I wonder if anyone today would think that they had gained "respectability" by meeting the president--at least respectability in that working class, good-ole-boy sense. I don't know if that says something about the nature of fame in general now, or what we think of our politicians, but today, looking at that note and Heather's description of the meeting, it seems like something out of an entirely different world.

hcr said...

Ooops! How's this for an admission?

I thought today was the 21st, which was the ACTUAL 40th anniversary of the meeting.

Sorry about that.

dan allosso said...

Dang! Harsh moral!

Some people are more effective outside the tent, p***ing in, though.