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Houses of the Holier-Than-Thou: Rock and Roll Crashes Washington’s Elite Holiday Party

 

This is the first part of a two-part series on Led Zep in DC. Click here for Part II
 

It was a few days before Christmas, 1970, and Elvis Presley was suddenly obsessed with a strange notion. Not another late-night private shopping spree for Lisa Marie, or a cross-country hamburger run this time. No, what Presley had in mind was far more important: the trumpet of destiny was once again beckoning him to her siren call. It had been decided somehow in his drug-addled mind that the King of Rock and Roll should meet the President of the United States. Not next week; not next year, or in the next decade: this had to happen right now.

Within hours, and without telling anyone in his Memphis Mafia entourage, Elvis was on a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C. – alone. Before Vernon Presley could say, “Has anybody seen Elvis?” (thus setting off a full-scale panic back at Graceland), Presley had arrived at the White House gates uninvited, asking to see the president.

Elvis explained to an astonished security guard that he knew the president was very busy, but that he would just like to say hello and give him a gift (a commemorative World War II .45 caliber pistol). He also bore in his hand a six-page handwritten note requesting – incredulously enough – to be appointed a "Federal Agent-at-Large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Once it had been determined that the letter was genuine and that this heavily armed, velvet-and-suede-clad man at the gate really was the Elvis Presley, phones began ringing frantically all over the White House. “What the hell do we do with this guy?” was the question of the day. Elvis waited patiently in his three-room suite back at the Hotel Washington while the president's men scrambled to accommodate his bizarre request.

In a staff memo fired off quickly to Nixon's Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, the president's Special Assistant Dwight Chapin suggested that “If the president wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with.”

Haldeman scribbled in the margins of the memo, “You must be kidding.”

Nevertheless, he approved the visit, and Presley was finally allowed entry into an inner sanctum that no rock-and-roller before him had ever penetrated: the Oval Office.

 Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Natalia Makarova, David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy GL to R: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Natalia Makarova, David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy and President Barack Obama at the White House

 

That groundbreaking summit brought a new whiff of respectability to rock and roll music, and yet even by the early 1980's, rock bands still weren't exactly welcome visitors on Washington's elite holiday party circuit. Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt memorably banned the clean-cut, all-American Beach Boys from the annual July 4th Concert on the Mall in 1983.

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