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Elvis and Nixon

Elvis Presley and President Richard M. Nixon.

This is a very famous picture. According to the National Archives, this photo is the most requested item that they have. There are more requests for this photo than there are for the United States Constitution. In case you don't recognize the people in the photo, that is Richard Nixon (then President of the United States) and Elvis Presley (the king of rock-n-roll, then, now, and forever).

The picture was taken when Presley visited Nixon for the purpose of being made a "Federal Agent-at-Large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. This was in December 1970. The irony of this is that Elvis had been a illegal drug user (drug abuser?) most of his adult life. Even at the time of the meeting, Elvis was doing a lot of drugs.

People have tried to reconcile Elvis' public behavior of being an outspoken critic of recreational drug use and his private behavior of being a heavy recreational drug user. One idea is that being appointed a federal drug agent was Elvis' way of arresting himself for his drug use. What was really on Elvis' mind, will never be known. But there are clues in the letter that he wrote to Nixon that indicate that there is nothing to reconcile. Let us look at the first paragraph of that letter.

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 three 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. [The various typos and grammatical errors are in the original.]

There is a certain naivete in this quote that is endearing. It is easy to see why Elvis inspired such loyal fans. But mixed with this naivete is a strong dose of of gold ol' American intolerance. He seems more concerned about the fact that these groups do no love America than he is about their drug use. And his wish to become a narcotics agent seems more about punishing those who do not love America than it is about ridding the country of drugs. This is seen even more clearly later in the letter where he likens drug abuse to Communist brainwashing.

Most of the time when a drug is being publicly vilified, a certain group is being vilified along with the drug. At the turn of century, we saw opium vilified largely because it was smoked by Chinese immigrants. Harry Anslinger coined the term "marijuana" so that it would be easier to associate with Mexicans. Cocaine has long be associated with blacks. In the debate of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, there were pointed racist attacks at southern blacks and these attacks were used to justify the need to control cocaine. Even today, crack cocaine--which is more associated with blacks--has higher criminal penalties than powder cocaine--which is more associated with middle class whites.

If people are not told who uses a particular drug, they have a hard time deciding whether the drug is good or bad. Test yourself, when you think of a drug, do you think of the effects of the drug or do you think of who uses the drug? For those using the drug in question, this may be hard to answer. For those with no first hand experience with the drug, the answer is the latter.

Crack Inner city blacks in a crack house
Heroin Skinny white thief
Marijuana Lazy teenager
Alcohol Various; mostly positive and based upon experience

This is not a problem that is peculiar to America. A look at world history will show that all cultures have accepted drugs and non-accepted drugs. Drug use is one important way that societies define themselves. Elvis is doing this in his letter to the president. His real problem is what the "hippie elements" stand for (whatever Elvis may have thought that was). And one of the most important things that defined hippies was their use of marijuana.

So Elvis' public and private behavior is not all that difficult to reconcile. Although 11 drugs where detected in his body at death, none of them were THC. The drugs that Elvis did were ones that people who loved America took.

Elvis Presley Biography

by Dr. H © 2001
Last Modified: 13 January 2004


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