Traveling incognito under the name Jon Burrows, rock and roll superstar Elvis Presley arrived at the White House in a purple velvet jumpsuit on this day in 1970 to meet President Richard Nixon. Offhand, this seems like an unlikely pairing but the king had his reasons for wanting to meet with the leader of the free world. Though a symbol of teenage rebellion in the 50s, Elvis was disdainful of 60s counterculture and wanted to offer his services to the federal government in the war on drugs. He also wanted a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to add to his growing collection of police badges. Though the meeting was kept under wraps for a year—and an opportunity for Elvis to work with White House staff to mount an anti-drugs project never arose—a single photograph deftly illustrating the marvelous incongruity of that meeting (above) has since become a major hit with the public. It currently stands as the best-selling image in the National Archives' collections and graces all sorts of ephemera and memorabilia, such as T-shirts and mugs. Be sure to read this article for the full story on the Nixon/Presley meeting and check out the Archives' site that contains original documents, photographs and fun downloads.
The Smithsonian is also an Elvis hotspot. If you're in town, be sure to see the National Portrait Gallery's show Elvis at 21, which features 56 shimmering black and white photographs of Elvis just as he began to emerge on the music scene and rise to fame. ATM blogger Jess Righthand chatted with photographer Alfred Wertheimer about his experience taking portraits of the artist as a young man. "All the images that I took are really of the authentic Elvis, who was directing his own life," Wertheimer reflects. "That’s what I think may be quite unique about the whole show." This exhibit is open until January 23, 2011 which means that you die-hard Elvis fans can check out the show on the king's birthday, January 8.
National Portrait Gallery researcher Warren Perry, who curated One Life: Echoes of Elvis, also offered ATM his insights on what made Presley such a unique presence on the 1950s music scene: "Elvis had the voice and the style that opened up African American music to white kids. Sure, but he also had a gutsy, feral sex appeal that the old crooners did not have." (Perry was also kind enough to meditate on the meaning of velvet Elvis paintings.)
So there you have it. Washington, DC is something of a Graceland-north this year. So if you're in town, maybe swing by the Portrait Gallery and National Archives' gift shops if you're in need of some last minute gift ideas. It's always a blue Christmas without a little Elvis, don't you think?