As a young teenager in Mt. Vernon, New York, I was an avid fan of Elvis Presley. I awaited the release of each new single and purchased the albums as they became available. I even combed my hair like Elvis and grew sideburns like him. I thought to look like him was cool; as a result, many of my fellow high school students viewed me as an enigma, not knowing if I was a sweet Jewish kid or a rock and roller ready to rumble.
Although I outgrew my fascination with Elvis as I matured, I still liked his music. I made a pilgrimage to Graceland, his famous Memphis home, during a Torah Umesorah Jewish educator’s convention in that city in the late 70s and then revisited it as an adult in the 1990s.
A friend of mine who knew of my early admiration of Elvis bought me a postcard depicting Elvis in Talis and Tefilin in front of the Western Wall with the caption “I saw Elvis Aaron Presley at the Western Wall.” So it was with great interest that I watched Elvis and Nixon, a fanciful recreation of a meeting between the “King,” Elvis, and President Nixon, which was immortalized in an iconic photo of the two, a photo that is the most requested picture in the National Archives.
The film opens on a December morning in 1970 when Elvis shows up at the White House requesting a meeting with President Nixon. The authorities at the gatehouse do not know what to make of his request. After a number of meetings with various White House aides, we learn that Elvis wants an audience with the President to let him know of his abiding concern for the youth of the country that is being seduced by the drug culture. Elvis wants to go undercover as a federal agent-at-large to infiltrate the drug gangs and bring them to justice. He also wants an official badge certifying his unique position within the law enforcement agency. He truly feels he has more access to the criminal element than an average Federal narcotics agent.
The bureaucracy of government does not know how to deal with Elvis’s request and Nixon has no interest in meeting him. All seems lost until one of Elvis’ traveling buddies, Jerry Schilling, is reminded of the power of Elvis on his female fans, the daughter of the president being no exception. With promises to her for an Elvis autograph and a photo of Elvis with her father, the White House staffers convince the President to meet with Elvis. The meeting goes well and lasts longer than anticipated. They part as friends and the iconic picture is taken.
What is gleaned from this comedy are some serious notions about fame, fortune, ego, and the desire to be admired and liked. Both Nixon and Elvis are famous, both came from poor backgrounds, and both are self-absorbed, thinking that the world revolves around them.
Jewish tradition encourages a totally opposite view of life, a life founded on humility. The giants of Jewish history were imbued with humility. Moses is known in the Bible as the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). Abraham saw himself as only “dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27). King Saul always wanted to avoid the limelight.
Moreover, there is a Hasidic story of a man who came to a holy and righteous man to ask for advice on how he should view fame. “All my life,” he said, “I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.” The holy man answered: “The trouble is that while you do run away from fame, you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you.”
Watching Elvis and Nixon reminds us of the empty nature of fame. No matter how much you pursue it, it eludes you because of its essential evanescent nature. A special moment can be captured in a photo, but the real business of life transcends the ephemeral nature of fame.