It was more than 39 years ago when Elvis Presley ushered him into the Oval Office to meet President Nixon, but it seems like only yesterday to Sonny West as he thinks about what might have been if the King was still around to celebrate his 75th birthday on Jan. 8.
"I was asleep at Graceland at seven in the morning when Elvis called and told me to get up to Washington right away because we were going to the White House to meet the president," said West, a Presley bodyguard who was living at Presley's estate in Memphis when he received the call on Dec. 21, 1970.
West relived the memory of one of the most unlikely events in the history of the White House in a telephone interview Monday from his home in Nashville. In fact, the photograph of the straight-laced Nixon's impromptu meeting with the flamboyant entertainer remains the most requested reproduction of any item in the National Archives, even more than the Bill of Rights or the U.S. Constitution.
West's involvement is especially ironic since he was banished from Presley's inner circle in 1976 because he collaborated on a tell-all book that detailed Presley's extravagant and self-destructive lifestyle, including the rampant abuse of prescription drugs that led to his death at age 42 just a year later. After 16 years of service to Presley, it left West feeling like nothing but an old hound dog.
But first, some background on the 1970 Nixon-Presley meeting. It was four days before Christmas and Presley had flown into the nation's Capital from Los Angeles the night before with another friend, Jerry Schilling. He told West he had just delivered a five-page handwritten letter to the White House asking for a meeting with Nixon to offer his service in combatting the drug culture and anti-Nixon protestors in exchange for credentials as a federal agent.
According to various published accounts, including two books co-authored by West, Nixon's personal aide Dwight Chapin showed the letter to Egil "Bud" Krogh, the deputy counsel to the president who had been charged with developing a new drug policy. They decided that Presley could bolster Nixon's appeal to young people and Chapin wrote a memo to Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman recommending that Nixon meet with the superstar singer later that day.
"It will take very little of the President's time and it can be extremely beneficial for the President to build some rapport," Chapin wrote. "In addition, if the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside the Government, Presley might be the perfect one to start with."
Haldeman was skeptical. "You must be kidding," he declared. But he approved the request, and told Krogh to write a memo for Nixon explaining the purpose of the meeting and giving him talking points. Krogh immediately placed a call to Presley's room at the Washington Hotel, where the famous singer had registered under the alias of Colonel Jon Burrows.
But according to West, Elvis had gone to FBI headquarters to try to meet with J. Edgar Hoover - Republican Sen. George Murphy of California, whom he'd met on the plane from Los Angeles, had promised to try to get him an appointment with Hoover. When Schilling answered the phone, Krogh asked if Presley could meet with him in his office in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House in the next 45 minutes.
A flabbergasted Schilling said yes, they would be there, and tracked down Elvis in the office of the director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, where he was trying without success to get credentials as an FBI undercover agent. Presley told Schilling to wait outside his hotel and he would pick him up in his limo. Just as he arrived, West pulled up in a cab from the airport, and the three of them drove to the Old Executive Office Building, where they met with Krogh.
A short time later, Krogh walked Presley across the street to the Oval Office while West and Schilling remained behind. Presley had planned to present Nixon with a chrome-plated World War II .45-caliber pistol, but the Secret Service relieved him of it, explaining he couldn't take it into the Oval Office. Instead, he brought all the badges he'd been given for his police work around the country and spread them out on Nixon's desk, along with autographed photos of himself and his wife and his daughter.
Then he asked Nixon if he could get him the FBI badge he had been denied earlier. According to Krogh's account of the meeting, "The President looked a little uncertain at this request. He turned to me and said, 'Bud, can we get him a badge?' I couldn't read what the President really wanted me to say. 'Well, sir,' I answered, 'if you want to give him a badge, I think we can get him one.' The President nodded. 'I'd like to do that. See that he gets one. ...'
"Elvis was smiling triumphantly. 'Thank you very much, sir. This means a lot to me.' ... Elvis than moved up close to the President and, in a spontaneous gesture, put his left arm around him and hugged him. President hugging was not, at least in my limited experience, a common occurrence in the Oval Office. It caught the President - and me - by surprise. The President recovered from his surprise and patted Elvis on the shoulder. 'Well, I appreciate your willingness to help, Mr. Presley.'" Krogh wrote that Presley looked "like a kid who'd just received all of the Christmas presents he'd asked for."
As he started to leave, according to West, Presley asked Nixon if he could say hello to his two friends waiting outside. "Jerry and I were sitting there and talking to [a Nixon aide] about our chance of meeting the president," West recalled. "But he said the president's appointments are made months in advance and it was unlikely we'd meet him. I said, 'You don't know Elvis. We'll meet the president.'
"Just then, there was Elvis, who said, 'Come on in.' I was first and I could hardly walk because I'd been asleep at Graceland only a few hours before. The president was sitting at his desk writing something and he go up and shook our hands. He said 'You're a couple of big guys, you take pretty good care of him, do you?' And Elvis said, 'Yes, they sure do.' He was almost taking over the meeting."
Nixon greeted them and handed them gold key chains with the presidential seal, West said. "We thanked him and then Elvis said, 'They've got wives too.' The president said OK, and went to his desk and Elvis followed him, and he came back with two pins that had the presidential seal hanging from it. We thanked him again and Elvis was still at the desk looking at what was in there.
"The president said, 'Do you see anything you like there?' and Elvis said, 'yes' and put a couple of medals in his pocket. The president said, 'I don't think what you're looking for is in there but I've arranged for you to get it.' All of a sudden, he hugged the president, who looked shocked. Then we went down and ate in the White House Mess and Krogh gave us a tour of the White House and Elvis signed autographs for everybody. When we got back to Krogh's office, the deputy director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was there and he handed Elvis his badge."
Presley had accomplished his mission, and he and West dropped off Schilling at the airport and returned to the Wahington Hotel, but he had one more mission in mind. He called a woman who worked on on the House Armed Services Committee whom he'd met the previous August, and persuaded her to spend the night with him.
Presley and West returned to Memphis the next day and about a week later, West got married, with Elvis serving as his best man.
West said he told Presley, "You lied to the president when you told him we both had wives. He just laughed."
West said Presley later fired him because "I was trying to get him off drugs and pain medication." He's writing a script for what he hopes will be a movie about his experience working at the side of one of the world's most famous entertainers.