Behind the Nixon/Elvis Photo

I recently heard Egil “Bud” Krogh speak at a conference about corporate ethics. Krogh is probably the least well-known of Richard Nixon’s Plumbers to serve time, but his story is still remarkable. His family and the family of John Ehrlichman had known each other for years, so when Ehrlichman made his way from Seattle to D.C. to be a part of the administration, it wasn’t long before Bud Krogh was a high-placed Nixon Administration official at age 32.

He spoke candidly about his belief at the time that his loyalty was to the President before the U.S. constitution. Since the Nixon Administration’s view was that anything that hurt it also by definition hurt national security, Krogh’s loyalties led him to believe it was right to authorize breaking in to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Ellsberg had released the Pentagon Papers, a huge blow to the Administration’s remaining credibility, and they needed something to discredit Ellsberg with.

Krogh had just hired G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt. They assured him the break-in would be a total black bag operation, very stealthy. Nobody would know, and yes, they had done this dozens of times before. Some stealth operation; they smashed the place up. Krogh eventually had an epiphany about the wrongness of his actions, refused to authorize a wiretap in the months ahead, and soon after pled guilty to violating the psychiatrist’s civil rights and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. He only served four and a half months in prison, but he refused a Presidential pardon when one was offered. It took him seven years to be readmitted to the Washington state bar, and now he makes his living talking about corporate ethics, group think, how good people make bad choices, and blah, blah, blah.

Here’s what was special about Bud Krogh: The man was a witness to history. And, he has been redeemed, having served the time, helped expose what the Nixon Administration was involved in, speaks frankly about what his experiences are, etc. Connection to iconic history naturally pulls people in to get a closer look and listen. I think Watergate has a particular appeal for a lot of people who follow politics. But being redeemed makes people actually root for you. You could just see people respond to him during his talk, and for the rest of the afternoon as he signed books and shared stories with people outside the convention hall. How much of that is redemption, how much is his talent as a speaker, and how much is the historical connection? Can’t say. Maybe it’s all about celebrity, but I don’t think so. The redemption element seemed palpable to me at the time, perhaps because that was in the title of his lecture and a general theme of his discussion.

Now, when you combine all of that feel-good gravitas with a glimpse behind that famous photo of Nixon and Elvis, which is the most-requested photo in the Presidential archive, you have the kind of thing that people write blog posts about. Bud Krogh was the guy who made that meeting happen, and his story describing it contained liberal use of a dead-on Nixon impersonation, the best I’ve ever seen.

Krogh was the Administration’s liaison to the various law-enforcement agencies. Elvis showed up at the White House gate with a letter that found its way to Krogh, wherein Elvis offered his services to help Richard Nixon’s fight against drugs in America. (According to Krogh, it’s one of only four or five letters Elvis ever wrote, and I think Krogh may still have the letter.) Elvis’s rationale had something to do with Elvis being able to reach “the young people”. Also, and this part is important, Elvis wanted a narcotics officer badge . A real badge. I know the Wikipedia page says it was an honorary badge, but Krogh said it was real. It’s not that important, but Pipeline readers are an inquisitive bunch. Either way, let’s assume it’s a real badge because that makes history more entertaining.

Krogh thought this was a practical joke, something not out of place among the staff in those days. He disregards the letter. A while later he gets a call from one of the staff people saying either Elvis is standing in her office with two huge bodyguards, or there is a very good Elvis impersonator standing in her office with two huge bodyguards. It is December 21, 1971, the same day Kurt Waldheim was chosen to succeed U Thant as Secretary General of the UN. But Bud Krogh doesn’t have anything to do with that, because he has two minutes to prepare for Elvis and try to think about how he’s going to pitch this to Nixon, who may or may not be aware of who Elvis is.

When Elvis arrives, he arrives. Krogh said you are obviously aware that you are in the presence of a superstar, eccentric auteur, whatever. It’s freaking Elvis! Because he’s Elvis, he’s wearing a purple velvet suit. His sunglasses have “EP” embedded in the middle in gold or uranium or something. Everything is very flashy with Elvis, especially in a monochrome world like that White House. Also, Elvis wants to give Nixon a loaded handgun as a gift but is told that’s not a good idea. Thought that counts, though.

Elvis stops a few feet into the Oval Office and stands, transfixed by all of the eagles that adorn the room. On the ceiling, the flag posts, the carpet, Elvis takes it all in. Nixon comes out from behind the desk, shooting furtive glances at Krogh every once in awhile wondering how long this engagement will be. Some conversation takes place wherein Elvis mentions the Beatles, which alarms Nixon, who it turned out did know who Elvis was. But the Beatles?

Nixon looks at Krogh. “Musical group, sir. Very popular.” It’s 1971; Nixon has completely missed the Beatles. Or, maybe Let It Be was Nixon’s first Beatles record, which means hearing their other records later was probably a shock for him, stylistically.

Eventually the subject of Elvis’s badge comes up. Nixon looks at Krogh and says, in the best Nixon you ever heard, “Bud, is that something we can do for Elvis?” And Bud Krogh, being a yes man at the time, says yes. Krogh said Elvis used the badge on at least two occasions afterwards, and that it was an obviously bad idea for him to have authorized Elvis’s drug badge. But on that day, of course Elvis can have a badge.

Elvis and Nixon do the photo. Nixon, in an effort to end the meeting, offers Elvis and his two bodyguards some of the Presidential gift schwag. According to Krogh, there is a drawer to Nixon’s left that has all manner of bounty, starting with golf balls containing the Presidential seal for the standard visitor, and ending in the back nether reaches of the drawer with untold riches reserved for people like the Pope.

Nixon fumbles around and produces a handful of nondescript items, which prompts Elvis and one of the bodyguards to move behind the desk to help Nixon. They find the back of the drawer and more or less empty it. Jewels, gold, bracelets, rings, watches, Elvis cleans Nixon out.

On the way out he says, in the best Elvis you ever heard, “Thank you very much, Mr. President.”

Bud Krogh is the one on the right

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14 Responses to Behind the Nixon/Elvis Photo

  1. Charley says:

    awesome. well-told. 🙂

  2. blaze says:

    Wow, can you imagine anyone missing the Beatles then discovering them by listening backwards? That happened to me for Led Zepplin but of course there first album was the best so it worked for Zep.

  3. I had a whole paragraph on Nixon’s voyage of Beatles discovery that started with Let It Be, but it ended up on the cutting room floor, as it was clearly time to go to bed.

    I assume you mean you started with In Through the Out Door, rather than the afterthought that was Co/Da. I also started with In Through the Out Door, which I purchased on the erroneous assumption that “Hot Dog” was actually the song “Black Dog”. It was not.

    Led Zep I, their best record? Very debatable. Houses of the Holy, for my money. But LZI is a fine, fine record.

  4. Jeff H says:

    I also discovered Zeppelin by listening backwards, which is how I came to worship Satan.

  5. No, Jeff! Don’t you realize there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on?

  6. kelly says:

    Amazing how the structures of power, and technology have changed everything. I’m actually a little shocked, have to imagine the gyrating elvis made the front page of the LA Times or whatever Nixon was reading back in the day…… or maybe he didn’t read.

    I guess I’ve fallen out of touch myself. I was recently in NYC and in my hotel there was some guy who was clearly a rock star (mohawk, sunglasses when inside, own the place attitude) and about 200 16 year old girls outside holding signs of his mohawked image…. he was no Elvis… i mean who is. But still don’t know who that guy was.

  7. Dude, you are so old! Even I know who that guy was.

    To be clear, Nixon knew who Elvis was. He didn’t know who the Beatles were.

  8. Nathan D says:

    Wonder what stories the photographer would tell.

    I gotta get me involved in some seriously nefarious shit — what a great way to get on the lecture circuit.

    (and I am actively resisting the urge to let fly with a bevy of zeppelin lyrics now)

  9. Elaine M says:

    Excellent story. If I ever get to the oval office, I now know to try and get the good schwag! Definitely won’t settle for a silly golf ball.

  10. Stanton says:

    If you ever find yourself in Memphis with a few hours to kill, visit Graceland. You have to see those 70s interiors in person to really appreciate them. And Elvis-at-Graceland comes off as a pretty nice guy. Don’t pay extra for the car museum though, it was lame.

  11. Pingback: Dizzying Intellect » Blog Archive » elvis + nixon

  12. Imagine if they could have traded id’s and taken on the world in a different way. Splits my mind contemplating how history would have played out.

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