“Within minutes of Elvis arriving in my office the wheels are already turning to get a meeting set up with the President.”
“He said, ‘Bud, the king is here.’ And I looked at the White House appointment calendar and said, ‘King? There aren’t any kings on the schedule today.’ He replied, ‘No, no no, the king, Elvis Presley, the king of rock. He’s here in Washington, D.C., and he wants to see the President.'”
Krogh, who served in the Nixon Whitehouse as an advisor and liaison to the FBI and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, recounts the story today with self-effacing chagrin. What many may view as a harmless oddity of White House history, he remembers as a lesson in how good intentions can turn sour in an instant. Krogh should know; he was later imprisoned for his part in the Watergate scandal.
A lesson in inexperience, decision-making and ethical blunders.
In an ethics presentation at the McCombs School of Business, Egil “Bud” Krogh drew upon the Nixon-Elvis meeting as an amusing morality play in integrity, and how it can be lost through vanity, ambition, incompetence and failure to ask the right questions.
He was 29 years old in 1970, delighted to be working at the White House and eager to please. That eagerness was about to lead him into an embarrassing dilemma.
“Now think of this, Elvis walks into my office and I was just a nervous wreck. ‘Please come in sir, sit here,’ it’s about a half hour of me sort of fawning over him. I was the biggest fan of them all. So within minutes of Elvis arriving in my office the wheels are already turning in the White House to get a meeting set up with the President.”
Krogh recounts that getting Elvis together with Nixon quickly became his overriding obsession, blinding him to subtle signs that things might not be going as well as he imagined.
“So I get a call from the head of the Secret Service detail and he said, ‘Bud, we’ve got a little problem, Elvis has brought a gun to give to the President. It’s a very nice gun, but you know we have a policy against that.”
After explaining to a disappointed Elvis that his chrome-plated Colt .45 gift pistol would not be able to enter the Oval Office, Krogh lead the entertainer into the room to greet a somewhat befuddled President.
“Nobody was ever dressed quite like that in the Oval Office! As I recall, Elvis is having a great time and the President has this look on his face like, what am I doing in this meeting and how long will it last?”
At that moment, Krogh was overjoyed with the encounter, not fully appreciating what was coming next.
“Elvis turns to the President and says, ‘You know, Mr. President, the Beatles came here, made a lot of money and said a lot of anti-American things,’ and the President is like, ‘Anti-American beetles?’ And Elvis says, ‘Mr. President, can you get me a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs?’
“The President turns to me and asks, ‘Bud, can we get him a badge?’ Now if you have no clue as to the answer to that question, an intelligent response would be, ‘I’ll look into it sir.’ But I wanted these guys to have a good time, so my response was, ‘Yes sir, if you want to give him a badge we can get him a badge.’
“Now there’s a law against giving a badge to people who have not gone through the training, and I just put the President in a position of going right past the law. Why? Because I wanted them to have a good time.”
Krogh sums up the experience as a preview of larger lapses in judgment that finally resulted in disgrace and a loss of the Presidency.
“I made a call during that meeting in which I didn’t understand the situation. I didn’t understand what Elvis really wanted, and I wanted the meeting to go well. That overrode my not knowing the right answer. I didn’t want to be caught not knowing, so I made a call that was wrong.
“Professor Robert Prentice has written about incrementalism, little decisions that don’t seem big, that grow and become larger over time. I had a great time at the meeting of Nixon and Elvis, but it could have raised a lot of trouble.”
Krogh summarizes the lessons learned from his years in the White House and in prison into three basic questions to ask about every decision made:
- Is my knowledge of the situation comprehensive (whole and complete)?
- Is it right?
- Is it good?
“I don’t think I ever asked those questions when I was making decisions on the White House staff. I was always asking technical, ministerial questions, but never the fundamental ethical questions. And that got a lot of people into trouble.”
Krogh delivered his comments to MBA students studying ethics under Professor Julie Irwin. What they know of Nixon, Elvis, Watergate and White House “Plumbers” has all been learned from the accounts of others. One hopes they can see past the gray hairs of the storyteller to recognize relevance to their world today.
Krogh finished by quoting the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus:
“The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day.”
For more on Egil “Bud” Krogh and The Integrity Zone.
Robert Prentice’s business ethics video series Ethics Unwrapped.