Legendary country music star Johnny Cash visited Richard Nixon’s White House in April 1970. His appearance there has been the subject of much myth and intrigue. Did the songs he played support or insult President Nixon? In the second of a two part series on celebrity visits to the Nixon White House, Christopher Benedict explains the truth behind the meeting – as well as the enduring legacy of both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

You can read the first article in this series on Elvis Presley here.

Johnny Cash and President Richard Nixon together in July 1972.

Johnny Cash and President Richard Nixon together in July 1972.

Part Two: Hello, I’m Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash performed onstage at a countless number of revered venues over the course of his half-century long recording career, some more unorthodox than others. He played for fans at the Grand Ole Opry and Madison Square Garden, inmates of Folsom and San Quentin Prison, soldiers in Vietnam, and members of the Sioux Indian tribe on their reservation at Wounded Knee.

Eight months prior to the impromptu and bewildering war-on-drugs summit between President Nixon and Elvis Presley, the Man in Black accepted an invitation to put on a concert at the White House’s East Room on April 17, 1970. The original introduction was made through Reverend Billy Graham, the evangelical Christian fundamentalist and mutual friend of Cash and Nixon. A staffer from the East Wing’s social office forwarded to Johnny Cash’s representatives, on behalf of the President, a request to play three specific songs during his set. “A Boy Named Sue”, said to be Nixon’s personal favorite, as well as Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac” by Guy Drake. 

It is here that the tale of Cash Meets Nixon takes a hard left turn into the intangible realm of wishful thinking and urban legend.


But which songs did he play?

To begin to pick through the twisted bits of fact and fiction that clear a path to the truth and remake reality, we must first turn the pages of the calendar, and forward two years from where we currently are. On July 26, 1972, Johnny Cash appeared before a Senate subcommittee on the Federal Prison Reorganization Act to advocate for more suitable conditions for, and humane treatment of, those incarcerated throughout the nation’s penitentiaries. No doubt he had in mind during his testimony the faces and stories of the convicts he had had a chance to interact with before and after his live shows at San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Afterwards, Cash revisited the Oval Office where he met with Richard Nixon to further drive home his passion for prison reform in a personal appeal to the man who would be the ultimate decision-maker on the matter.

The story goes, as it has been misappropriated by certain left-leaning and well-meaning but misguided liberals, that it is now when Nixon makes a spontaneous face to face plea for Johnny to play the three aforementioned songs for his private amusement. Because “Welfare Cadillac” paints those living in poverty in disparagingly broad brush strokes as scheming, grumbling opportunists living high off of handouts from a government they detest, and “Okie From Muskogee” speaks from a clearly conservative point of view in mocking the nation’s counterculture and Vietnam War protestors (which would have won favor with Elvis), Cash indignantly refused. Instead, he reached for his acoustic guitar and unleashed a defiant musical repudiation of Nixon’s far-right agenda consisting of “What Is Truth?”, “Man In Black”, and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, an anthem from his Bitter Tears album shining a light on the dark misdeeds done to Native Americans, in this specific case the heroic World War II Marine who was one of the six Iwo Jima flag raisers and died at the age of 32 on his Arizona Pima reservation, losing his post-war struggles with poverty, alcohol, survivor’s guilt, and unwanted fame.


So what songs did Cash play?

Which would have been great. Had it happened. The facts, as they sometimes tend to do, have become muddled and juxtaposed into a sort of speculative jigsaw puzzle with universally corresponding pieces that can be conveniently arranged into a pictorial (or political, as it may be) rendition of your own choosing.

Johnny Cash did, for the most part, rebuff Nixon’s playlist in a manner that was disagreeable enough to earn the attention of the press and President alike back in 1970, where we return for the duration. Nixon, in his humorously understated onstage introduction of Cash, admitted to being no expert at Cash’s music. “I found that out when I began to tell him what to sing,” joked the President, playing off a tense situation for laughs. Whether his initial irritation had to do with the subject matter of the requested tunes or simply the fact that he did not like being told what to do or what songs to play and when, the actual reason for his not doing “Welfare Cadillac” or “Okie From Muskogee” seems to be that, to allow Cash himself to set the record straight, “the request had come in too late. If it hadn’t,” he continues, “then the issue might have become the messages, but fortunately I didn’t have to deal with that.”

He did, however, start his set on a conciliatory note with “A Boy Named Sue”, unfortunately eschewing his customary greeting “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and even going so far as to self-censor the line where Sue’s father gets to tell his side of the story, by screeching unintelligibly over the word “sonofabitch”. He also altered the list of names which Sue vows to give his own son by concluding, “I’ll name him...John Carter Cash” in a loving tribute to his six week-old infant. Backed up at alternating points by June Carter and her family band, the Statler Brothers, and Carl Perkins, Johnny and the Tennessee Three blasted their way through thirteen more songs before ending on a medley of “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk the Line”, and “Ring of Fire”, followed by a full-cast finale of the traditional spiritual “Suppertime”.                                                                                                                Nixon was seen squirming in his seat during the anti-war “What Is Truth?”, probably most noticeably during the last verse which goes, “the ones that you’re calling wild/are gonna be the leaders in a little while/this old world’s waking to a newborn day/and I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way.” Ouch. That had to hurt the leader of the free world who represented his so-called ‘silent majority’ of war supporters and was at that very time attempting to suppress mainstream news reportage of the My Lai massacre while accelerating the carpet bombings of Laos and Cambodia.


Politics on the tour?

Absent from the set list, however, was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” which is a shame, not only for the rebellious element its inclusion would have satisfied in leftists and peaceniks then and now, but for the serendipitous coincidence that Apollo 13 had reentered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down safely in the South Pacific Ocean that very morning. There, the craft and its grateful crew were recovered by and taken aboard the USS Iwo Jima.

Johnny fondly recalls the two-hour post-concert White House tour he and June were given personally by the President and First Lady Pat in his memoirs, describing the normally socially uneasy Nixon as “kind and charming”, adding that “he seemed to be honestly enjoying himself.” “The President even had me lie down and stretch out on the Lincoln bed,” Cash wrote, “and didn’t charge me, either.”

Adding to the dark cloud hanging over the preliminaries to the event was a White House memorandum issued to H. R. Haldeman by Nixon adviser Murray Choitner which worried over the fact that Cash might wield his influence with voters in promoting former country music star Tex Ritter in the upcoming Tennessee GOP Senatorial primaries over the administration’s stated favorite, Congressman Bill Brock. Choitner suggests to Haldeman that “it will be most helpful if privately the President can neutralize Johnny Cash so that he does not campaign for Ritter.” But this storm too passed. For, no matter the nature of whatever conversation did take place behind closed Lincoln bedroom doors regarding Cash’s civic duties, Ritter (who attended Cash’s concert that night) lost by an overwhelming margin to Brock, who went on to unseat the incumbent, Al Gore Sr.

Furthermore, if Ritter was apprised of the intended chicanery, it goes without saying that he bore no grudge. In 1973, he would present to an increasingly unpredictable and unpopular Nixon one of only two copies (the other going directly into the collection of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame) of an album titled Thank You Mr. President, which spliced together contemporary country hits with excerpts from Nixon’s speeches, narrated by Tex himself.


Cash’s legacy

Johnny Cash, who once said that “I thank God for all the freedoms we’ve got in this country...even the rights to burn the flag...we also got the right to bear arms, and if you burn my flag, I’ll shoot you”, was a complex and sometimes contradictory individual. The fact that he remained consistent in his noncompliance with being branded by an opportune label or fitting comfortably within the margins of a clearly defined interpretation makes his insubordinate thought process, and the thousands of songs it manifested, all the more intriguing and enduring.

Just ask country performer John Rich who blundered during a 2008 Florida rally for Republican Presidential hopeful John McCain by claiming that “Somebody’s got to walk the line in the country. And I’m sure Johnny Cash would have been a John McCain supporter.” Johnny’s daughter Roseanne took exception to this assertion by issuing a rebuttal saying, “It is appalling to me that people still want to invoke my father’s name, five years after his death, to ascribe beliefs, ideals, values, and loyalties to him that cannot possibly be determined, and try to further their own agendas by doing so.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner likewise felt the wrath of the offspring of the Man in Black during the 2010 mid-term elections by reminiscing about the glory days of the Reagan administration (think here of Ronnie’s hilarious misuse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a theme song during his own 1984 re-election bid). “We had Bob Hope. We had Johnny Cash,” Boehner was fond of repeating during stump speeches. “Think about where we are today. We have got President Obama. But we have no hope and we have no cash.”

Roseanne’s retort this time was more terse and to the point. She tweeted “John Boehner: Stop using my dad’s name as a punch line, you asshat.” 


Cash and Elvis

Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley are both unique in a myriad of ways. That they were many things to many people is not one of them. Among the various shapes into which they shifted, or have been twisted, were walk-on roles in the theatre of the absurd that the Richard Nixon presidency would be. The administration’s disgraceful last act featured a cast of characters such as John Mitchell, Howard Hunt, Charles Colson and their fellow CREEPs (Committee to Re-Elect the President), Daniel Ellsberg whose dissemination of the Pentagon Papers was a leak that G. Gordon Liddy and his “plumbers” could not stop, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reporting for Katharine Graham’s Washington Post on “deep background” tips from the shadowy Deep Throat (revealed in 2005 to be former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt), championed by Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.

While deputizing Elvis in the oval office, Nixon stressed to him the importance of the King’s capacity for using his talent and public profile to “reach young people” and “retain his credibility”. Ironically, it was Tricky Dick’s inability to accomplish either of these objectives that would facilitate his own demise.


Did you enjoy the article? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

And remember, part one in this series on the day that Nixon and Elvis met is here.



  • Man in Black by Johnny Cash (1975 Zondervan)
  • Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr (2003 Harper One)
  • Johnny Cash Bootleg Volume 3: Live Around the World (2011 Sony Legacy)
  • Johnny Cash & Richard Nixon by Les Marcott (Scene4 Magazine, January 2014)
  • 17 April 1970: RN Welcomes The Man in Black to the White House (Richard Nixon Presidential Library archives)
  • White House Memorandum from Murray Choitner to H. R. Haldeman (April 2, 1970)
  • The Bitter Tears of Johnny Cash by Antonino D’Ambrosio (Salon.com, November 8, 2009)
  • The Republicans Play Dirty by Caspar Llewellyn Smith (The Guardian, September 13, 2008)
  • My Cowboy Suffers No Longer by Sherry Mowery (SodaHead, November 2, 2010)     


Elvis Presley paid a visit to President Richard Nixon in 1970. But why? In the first of a two part series on celebrity visits to the Nixon White House, Christopher Benedict explains the bizarre reason why Elvis wanted to visit Nixon, and tells us of the fascinating and humorous events of the day that these two men met.

Elvis and Nixon in the White House.

Elvis and Nixon in the White House.

Part One: Federal Agent Elvis Presley

One of the official functions of a sitting U.S. President, call it a welcome diversion or necessary evil, is entertaining and being entertained by heads of state and dignitaries representing foreign countries. But they also host high-profile celebrities. Among the remarkable names to be registered in Richard Nixon’s White House guestbook (not to mention potentially recorded by his voice-activated taping system) were Ethiopian Emperor Halie Selassie, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Gleason, Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, John Wayne, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

Within eight months of one another in 1970, two of popular music’s largest looming figures, then as now, would both mark uniquely divergent lines of trajectory terminating at the Oval Office and using Memphis’ Sun Studios as their shared jumping off point. The White House visits of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are as singularly idiosyncratic and given to mythology as are the men, and the host, themselves.



It can never be said of Elvis Presley that he was a believer in doing anything in half measures. This is a man, after all, whose musical legacy is often considered secondary to his penchant for gaudy jewelry and garish outfits, his frightful consumption of barbiturates and fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches, his collection of cars and guitars, airplanes and handguns. As a token of his genuine admiration for Nixon, Elvis chose one of his prized pistols (a chrome-plated World War II issued Colt .45) to be his personal ‘thank you’ gift for the pleasure of being able “…to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy”, as Presley concludes his letter of introduction. There was, however, an ulterior motive to Elvis’ overture, equal parts juvenile ebullience and questionable entitlement, owing to his odd desire to add a coveted badge to another of his cherished collections, namely a merit from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

One recurring theme in the recollections of those who knew him most intimately is Presley’s childlike demeanor and, consistent with any garden variety guttersnipe, Elvis was subject to irrationally impulsive behavior as well as throwing temper tantrums when his whims were repulsed or called into question. Following a confrontation with Priscilla and his father Vernon over his extravagant (even by his standards) Christmas spending spree, the King placed a call to Jerry Schilling, a member of Elvis’ infamous inner circle of bodyguards and confidantes known as the Memphis Mafia. Schilling recalled being given a laundry list of requests including reserving airplane tickets to Washington D.C. using the alias John Carpenter (his character’s name in Change of Habit) and a block of suites at the Washington Hotel under his other favorite secret identity Jon Burrows, hiring the very same limousine driver who chauffeured Presley around on his last visit to the nation’s capital, contacting his private security man Sonny West to meet them upon arrival to provide muscle, and permitting that tell Vernon and Priscilla no more than that he was somewhere safe.


Elvis as a Federal Agent?

Scrawled on American Airlines stationery during their East-bound flight, Elvis begins his missive to Richard Nixon by telling of a recent meeting with Spiro Agnew in Palm Springs (during which Agnew politely declined his gift of a gun) where he discussed with the Vice President his concern over the subversive influence he felt was being exerted on the country by radical fringe groups such as “the drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), Black Panthers, etc.” He goes on to claim to have “done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques” and pledge to act in the society’s best interest to the best extent possible of an entertainer, but that “I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large.” Vowing to “be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials”, Elvis was every bit the little boy needing only a gold star to pin on his flannel shirt to complete his make-believe sheriff outfit to go fight the bad guys on the playground or in the backyard. Only this constituted serious business in the King’s mind, albeit one which Jerry Schilling was beginning to wonder about the dubious stability of.

George Murphy, the Republican Senator from California, was also on Presley’s flight and promised Elvis during their mid-air discussion to contact BNDD Director John Ingersoll on his behalf as well as attempt to grant him an audience with none other than FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover. The meeting with Hoover never happened and Ingersoll was away from the office, so Elvis met instead with Deputy Director John Finlator who informed a dejected Presley that his bureau could neither accept private donations nor issue honorary badges. Just as he had disgustedly exclaimed “fuck the Colonel” prior to his petulant departure, so too did he walk away from the Narcotics Bureau sneering “fuck Finlator”, doubly intent now on relying upon the President’s good graces to get his badge.


In the White House

Nixon aide Emil Krogh was the original recipient of Elvis’ handwritten letter, passing it on to Dwight Chapin, Deputy Assistant to the President, who then handed it off to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman who, appreciating the public relations value of such a meeting, gave his official stamp of approval to Elvis’ December 21 White House visit. Although he was forced to surrender the “commemorative World War II Colt .45 pistol, encased in the handsome wooden chest”(which Nixon makes special mention of in his thank you letter dated ten days later) at the West Wing security checkpoint, Elvis retained his show-off collection of police badges and array of family photographs meant as an additional presidential offering. Flanked by Jerry Schilling and Sonny West and decked out in a lavender jumpsuit with a darker purple, practically knee-length velvet jacket to match and a white shirt beneath, the collar of which is so wide as to look like angel’s wings protruding from his clavicle, to say nothing of the gold belt buckle half the size of his head, Presley’s ostentatious entrance was betrayed by his initial nervousness, if one can imagine Elvis being star-struck. West, Schilling, and ‘Bud’ Krogh (who was present to make notes of the occasion for the official White House memorandum) all recalled the initial awkward moments due as much to Elvis’ wide-eyed anxiety as to Tricky Dick’s uncomfortably tense social conduct.

It evidently did not take Elvis long to gain his composure and assume command of the situation. Spreading his badges and photos across Nixon’s desk like he owned the place or was at least a frequent and informal guest, he launched into a bizarre diatribe against the Beatles who he felt, as Krogh wrote in his memo, “…had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme.” Krogh goes on to mention that the President replied how “violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.”


That badge…

Elvis agreed and offered his earnest assistance in appealing to the anti-establishment factions that clearly made both men so ill-at-ease, but with whom Presley felt he could make a positive impact. He then made known his displeasure at being spurned by the BNDD and wondered whether Nixon would endeavor to procure him the Federal Agent badge they had denied him. After confirming with Krogh that this was possible, the President personally summoned Deputy Director Finlator to the White House. This gesture earned Nixon an enthusiastic bear hug, the Commander-in-Chief visibly stiffening in Presley’s embrace while skittishly patting his shoulder in kind.

Nixon presented the three men with tie clasps and cuff links bearing the White House emblem before posing with Elvis for the iconic photograph that quickly became the most requested image for reproduction by the National Archives, and is available now emblazoned on any number of souvenirs in the gift shops of the Archives, White House, and Nixon Presidential Library. Presley reportedly took it upon himself to help Nixon rummage through his desk for gifts to bring back for their wives before the President excused himself, leaving the trio in Krogh’s hands. He took the trio on a guided tour, during which Elvis said hello to and signed autographs for pleasantly surprised interns and staffers, then hosted a late lunch in his office where they were joined by John Finlator, who sheepishly handed over to the pill-popping rock star his paradoxically prized Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge.                                                         When Presley took his leave, it was with an expression on his face (in Krogh’s words) “like a kid who just received all of the Christmas presents he’d asked for.”    


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Part 2 in this series will be published next week…


  • When Elvis Met Nixon: A Bizarre Encounter Between the President and the King of Rock and Roll by Peter Carlson (Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010)
  • Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (1999 Little, Brown, and Co.)
  • Letter from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon (December 21, 1970)
  • White House Memorandum from Dwight L. Chapin to H. R. Haldeman, Subject: Elvis Presley (December 21, 1970)
  • White House Memorandum For The President’s File by Emil ‘Bud’ Krogh, Subject: Meeting With Elvis Presley, Monday, December 21, 1970, 12:30 p.m.
  • Executive dictation of thanks letter from Richard Nixon to Elvis Presley (December 31, 1970)

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones