The greatest combination of pop culture kitsch meets Presidential evil probably happened on 21 December 1970. Elvis Presley, nearing his 36th birthday and apparently living on a stable diet of prescription barbiturates and peanut butter and banana sandwiches, was facing what would prove to be the twilight of his career. Save for a brilliant 1968 TV comeback special that should have solidified his status as a raging rock ‘n’ roll founding father, Presley seemed comfortable just settling into his role as the first Elvis impersonator. The Elvis that had burned so dangerously from approximately 1955-1960 would never fully return.
The most frustrating part of that 1968 special was the fact that it could have been the foundation for so much more. “Suspicious Minds” preceded December 1970, and “Burning Love” followed it two years later. This was a man coasting on the fumes of a legend that wasn’t speaking to the younger generation of 1970. This was a man surrounded by sycophants and apparently unaware of the poisonous influence of the drugs swirling through his system. Seclude yourself in a mansion called Graceland and finish a successful sell-out Vegas engagement, breaking a nine-year absence from the stage, and delusions of grandeur start to make sense. These are the elements that motivate Elvis Presley to write a six-page letter to Richard Nixon and invite himself in for a meet and greet.
“I call it America and I love it,” Presley writes in his first paragraph, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. What we do feel, though, and not just with the benefit of these many years, is compassion. This was not an educated man. This was an unvarnished, basic Tupelo country boy who had walked into a music studio in 1953 to record a song for his mother. Seventeen years after that recording, sitting atop millions of record sales and looking down from the mountaintop of a kingdom over which he may or may not have wanted to rule, any element of revolt or revolution he might have initially represented was gone. Elvis may not have been aware of his complicity in the wholesale cultural appropriation of “race” music, rhythm and blues, and gospel, but the evidence was overwhelming. He was certainly the spark that made rock ‘n’ roll marketable to a mainstream (white) audience while the real kings, still with us (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino) saw no need to curry favor with the establishment.
“I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position,” Presley continues. Instead, he asked to be made a Federal Agent at Large. “I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials.” He provides the address in Washington, DC where he is staying with his entourage and even the name under which he is registered. “I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials…” He then notes (without providing relevant details) that he has undertaken an in-depth study of “drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques…” Pictures come to mind of Presley, glassy-eyed, sitting before a wall of big Motorola TVs, each broadcasting The Manchurian Candidate. He caresses the pistol in his right hand and, perhaps, prays the drugs don’t make his trigger finger randomly shoot first and ask questions later.
The letter concludes with an incredulous mixture of naiveté, ignorance, and charming humility. He asks that this correspondence be “kept very private”. He notes that he had been nominated as one of “America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men”, and a ceremony would be held January 18th in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Decades before Google or Wikipedia, Presley kindly provides “a short autobiography of myself” so that Nixon might better understand the importance of this mission.
History tells us that Presley wrote this letter on a red-eye flight from Vegas to DC. He’d spent more than $100k for Christmas gifts that year on handguns and Mercedes. His gift to Nixon during that meeting was a display-mounted Colt .45 pistol direct from a wall in his Los Angeles mansion, which was confiscated by the Secret Service before Presley went in to meet Nixon. There were no audio recordings, so the only accounts of the meeting are secondhand. Presley cited the Beatles as anti-American and vowed his support to Nixon. “I’m on your side,” he said, and a skeptical observer might wonder if Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” was running through Presley’s mind. Lack of any official video record leads to the wildest of speculations. What we know is that Elvis got an honorary Federal Narcotics Badge from Nixon and souvenirs for his entourage. Less than four years later, Nixon would resign from his second term in absolute disgrace, and three years after that, Presley would be dead.
Kanye Meets Trump, 13 December 2016
From 2004-2007, with The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, Kanye West’s first major recordings as a solo hip-hop performer/producer were a powerful and literate examination of his life and times. Themes went beyond the typical gangster persona so dominant in the genre at the time and went on to discuss religion, sexuality, self-consciousness and personal identity. Take such tracks as “Through the Wire”, “Jesus Walks”, and the ingenious sampling of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” in “Gold Digger”, and this was an artist who knew exactly what he wanted and where he needed to go. The wisdom of the chosen path would remain to be seen. West was conclusively an artist who mixed clever artistry and commercial acumen and established himself as a voice that would not be silenced.
The Kanye West story in 2016 was difficult and troubling. Where Elvis’s story is more the narrative of a poor boy who allowed himself to be smothered by the star-making machinery, Kanye’s seemed to be a mixture of bi-polar manic depression, hubris, and misdirected energies. If we applauded his legendary statement during a live 2005 TV fundraiser supporting victims of Hurricane Katrina that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, we soon became inundated by his taunts against Taylor Swift, his increasingly bizarre fashion designs, and his willingness to be packaged in the ultimate scripted “reality” TV show that is the Kardashian family. What was once compelling and exciting eventually and conclusively became a vivid, exposed scab of a joke. If our worst tendencies as a people can be seen in our tendency to enjoy public spectacles of emotional instability, West proved more than willing to play the game.
Shortly after 9AM on Tuesday 13 December, in the midst of the comings and goings that had been happening at Trump Tower since the election results, the continuous display of supplicants eager to carve their own spot in the gold-plated cabinet of this new administration, West added himself to the fray. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” Trump told reporters. “We discussed life.” West added more detail but less definition to the contents of their discussions. “I wanted to… discuss multicultural issues,” he tweeted. “These issues included bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculum, and violence in Chicago.” West, who had previously declared he’d be running for President in 2020, added that he wanted a direct line of communication with Trump in order to effect change and ended his series of tweets with “#2024”. In other words, he’d let this Trump possibility grow to its Constitutionally-required expiration date.
There were several ways to see this meeting, none of which showed either party in a good light. West, who had just finished a stay in a Mental Health facility, seemed stable and reasonable in those tweets. It’s when we see his face in the post-meeting photos that we sense trouble. Was he fully there? Where once we’d seen a menacing scowl on his face as he went about his business on stage or in fights with the paparazzi, now the man is quiet, small, and sad. He looks like Trump did after that initial post-election meeting with President Obama, overwhelmed at finding himself in the glare of the headlights. For his part, Trump — sporting a pinkish shade of a sort of tan and with his hair in a perfect orange wave — appeared ecstatic. His grin was enormous and with the forefinger of his tiny right hand, he gave a “get a load of this guy” gesture towards West. He’s on my side. He’s my black friend.
Elvis was not yet 36 when he met Nixon, and West is 39. Nixon was headed down a rabbit hole from which he would never recover, and Trump is still in campaign mode, secure that the people will pay for the unnecessary security of Trump Tower when all he’d need to do is move into The White House. There’s no telling if Trump or West had Nixon and Presley in mind while they posed for this picture because it’s more than just a still photo from the Press pool. It’s video, Instagram, and Facebook. Today, the picture of a frightened West vanquished by a malevolent, grinning Trump is a meme, a heretofore impossible merger of two enormous egos sucking out all the air from the Trump Hotel lobby. Had West done his homework, he might have concluded that Trump would do anything to provide him with an audience but nothing to follow through on any promises. Such were the dependable inconsistencies of political, social, multi-media confessional life in 2016.
Three months have passed since Donald J. Trump made a careful, calculated display of Kanye West as his go-to black friend. The meeting was big news for a while in those numb days between the November 2016 election and January 2017 Inauguration, fodder for late-night TV comedians and a trigger for social commentators worried that an unstable African American musical performer had allowed himself to be used for political purposes. Three months seems like a lifetime for a public still feeding off the fumes of a divisive election. In many ways, those first numb days now seem quaint. West continues his emotional freefall, his every move a blessing for gossip sites. Is he suicidal? Will he divorce his wife? Is his fashion line obsolete? Meanwhile, Trump is swimming through the darkest days of his early Presidency; a broken cabinet, information leaks, paranoia and threats to shut down “fake news”. As both men continue their descent into the darkness of a singular world surrounded by slithering sycophants, perhaps 13 December 2016 – the day they posed for that photograph in the lobby of Trump Tower – will become the only thing they can remember about one another.