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Elvis Presley and the Medal of Freedom: How would the King have felt about this honour from Trump?

The rock icon is one of seven people who were awarded the medal on Friday

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 16 November 2018 22:42
Elvis Presley on war protesters and Women's Liberation

Elvis Presley was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Friday, 41 years after his death.

While it may come as a surprise that no president included the King on his list of honorees until today, Donald Trump was the one to finally extend the distinction – the highest civilian honour – to the cultural icon.

So just how honoured would Presley have felt to receive the medal from Trump – as opposed to, for instance, his predecessor Barack Obama, who gave it to Diana Ross and Bob Dylan, among others; George W Bush, who awarded it to Aretha Franklin and B B King; or Ronald Reagan, whose picks included Frank Sinatra and Pearl Bailey?

The Heartbreak Hotel singer, who would be 83 years old today, was relatively discreet with his political opinions, once describing himself as an "entertainer" above all.

But some of Presley's actions – such as his 1970 visit with Republican President Richard Nixon, which he initiated – suggest he leaned towards the right.

During a 1972 interview at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked the musician, who was drafted in 1957 and served in the US Army from 1958 to 1960: "Mr Presley, as you've mentioned your time in the service, what is your opinion of war protesters and would you today refuse to be drafted?"

Presley responded: "Honey, I'd just sooner keep my own personal views about that to myself, 'cause I'm just an entertainer and I'd rather not say."

In the same interview, he said he didn't have any aspirations "in politics or anything of that nature".

Another reporter asked: "Mr Presley, what do you think about Women's Liberation?"

After cracking a joke, Presley once again dodged the question, replying: "On social comments like this, I'd just sooner not make a comment."

Trump – who obtained five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, including one for a foot problem – has expressed respect for the military as part of his rhetoric, though he has also earned backlash after criticising late veteran Senator John McCain for being captured in Vietnam.

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As for women's rights, the president (who once bragged about being able to "grab" women "by the p****" isn't a known defender of the cause and has considered the possibility of leaving abortion legislation up to individual states, rather than federal law.

President Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley 21 December, 1970 at the White House.

The most political moment of the King's career was probably his meeting with Nixon on 21 December 1970.

He personally showed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver a letter he had written to the president. In the missive, Presley said he wanted to give Nixon a gift and expressed interest in qualifying as a federal agent in the war on drugs, according to an online exhibit kept by the National Archives.

Presley, who thought he was a good candidate to do drug prevention due to his ability to reach people of all ages, ended up meeting Nixon later that same day and received a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

He endeared himself to Nixon Aide Egil Krogh so much that Krogh later lamented the fact that there was never an opportunity to hire Presley to "work with the White House staff".

"I liked him a lot," Krogh said of Presley.

Following Nixon's death, the New York Times included more details about Presley's White House visit in a story questioning the Republican president's legacy.

During the meeting, Presley showed Nixon some of his law enforcement paraphernalia, "including badges from police departments in California, Colorado and Tennessee", the newspaper noted.

There have been some comparisons between Trump and Nixon; The Commercial Appeal, a local Memphis newspaper, likened Nixon's encounter with Presley to Trump's visit with Kanye West.

Trump and Nixon even partied together on one occasion in 1989, as previously reported by the New York Times.

Some, however, have argued that the two presidents aren't so similar, including Nixon's own former White House Counsel John Dean.

"Trump’s is making the long nightmare of Nixon’s Watergate seem like a brief idyllic daydream,' Dean tweeted earlier this month.

"History will treat Nixon’s moral failures as relatively less troubling than Trump’s sustained and growing decadence, deviousness and self-delusive behaviour. Nixon=corrupt; Trump=evil."

Presley's meeting with Trump also brought to the surface the musician's fervent patriotism – and apparent dislike of the Beatles.

"Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit," the publication wrote.

"He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme."

Trump hasn't shied away from publicly criticising celebrities who have ruffled his feathers.

In recent years, he has fuelled feuds with Rosie O'Donnell, Anna Wintour, Stephen Curry, Meryl Streep, Chrissy Teigen, and Michael Moore.

The president has also referred to Democrats as "un-American", not unlike Presley did with the Beatles.

While the entertainment industry is often considered to be a predominantly liberal world, Presley – with his gusto for Nixon, his anti-drugs stance (which preceded his own battle with substance abuse), and his enthusiasm for law enforcement – appears to have held positions in contrast with most progressive ideals.

Given the musician's reluctance to take a strong political stance, it doesn't seem like not too much of a stretch to say he would likely have collected his medal from Trump without too much fuss.

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