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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 18 - The Celebrity File


As well as providing funds for clandestine operations and assassinations, the new heroin crusade promised to fulfill a cherished political objective of the Nixon administration: the recruitment of celebrities into the Nixon camp. In 1969, immediately after he assumed office, President Nixon had attempted to mobilize the disc jockeys of the nation into an antimarijuana campaign, which would give his administration considerable exposure on the nation's airwaves. Art Buchwald, the noted humorist, invited the leading disc jockeys to the White House at the president's request. Egil Krogh, coordinator of the event, explained, "Murray the K came and Cousin Brucie came and others.... We asked them to incorporate into their hip language between the playing of hip tunes sort of an antidrug theme.... They tried to tell us that perhaps they weren't the best vehicle for ... an antidrug pitch." The president was slightly more successful in recruiting Art Linkletter into his anti-LSD campaign, after the entertainer's daughter committed suicide in 1969. An Air Force plane was sent to fly Linkletter from California to the governors' conference in Washington in December, 1969, and after an emotional session with the assembled governors, Linkletter agreed to head a national advisory council on drugs.  

Now the White House Sought a more charismatic celebrity according to Krogh, and in December. 1970, Elvis Presley, the rock star, was brought to the White House to cooperate in the drug program. Egil Krogh described the encounter between Presley and the president: "Elvis showed up at the northwest gate of the White House with velvet pants and his silk shirt opened to his waist.... He wanted to tell the president how strongly he felt [about the drug problem] because he loved his country ... but he said he'd also like to have a BNDD badge, because he collected badges.... His gift to the president was not appropriated .44 Colt automatic pistol with bullets.... He went into the president's office and it had to be the most bizarre meeting I'd ever seen.... He said, 'Mr. President, I really believe in what you are doing, I love my country, I love my family, I think law enforcement is great.'. . . The president suggested that he use an antidrug theme in his songs and Presley responded by showing the president his badge collection, and asked the president for a BNDD badge. The president shook his head in disbelief ... and Presley ended the interview by suggesting that they keep this meeting secret. Nixon responded, 'Absolutely! Don't tell anybody; preserve your credibility at all cost.' " Elvis later received his BNDD badge, but the White House staff decided that he would not make an appropriate campaigner for the president.

It was not until the spring of 1971, when the White House strategists were writing the scenario for a national heroin crusade, that the appropriate celebrity was found-Sammy Davis, Jr. John Ehrlichman broached the subject to President Nixon on May 28. The details of that discussion, transcribed by Krogh for the President's File, note, "It is suggested that the President consent to an interview with Sammy Davis, Jr. on the subject of drug abuse as an introduction to a ninety minute drug abuse television special M.C.'d by Sammy Davis, Jr. and participated in by well known musicians and actors" Ehrlichman cited the advantages of such a connection, saying, "in view of the fact that Davis will be taking over a number of talk shows over the next four months, the administration would get continuous mileage out of the fact that Davis is involved with this production. Furthermore, Davis could be asked to bring a live production to our troops in Viet Nam and in NATO countries." (Donald Rumsfeld, then ambassador to NATO, had sent Egil Krogh a memorandum a few days earlier mentioning that President Nixon had suggested sending "Art Linkletter ... to do a world tour of military bases . . . linked with the drug program because he could talk so effectively about his daughter and the problem.") Ehrlichman finally persuaded the president to use Sammy Davis, Jr., by arguing, "As a result of this special, the President could cultivate a friendship with the top artist for 1972 campaign purposes."

 To further the plan, President Nixon personally met with Sammy Davis, Jr., on July 1, 1971. According to the memorandum on the meeting, Davis said that he was "honored and thrilled to be with the President." Nixon quickly came to the point and said, "As a celebrity the country would listen to [your] caution about drugs much quicker than they would to the cautions of politicians.... Kids would be turned on by [you]." He further assured Davis that the administration was for kids and it was not trying to repress them. Knowing that Davis was interested in the fate of black colleges, Nixon added, "The Administration is behind black colleges and has thus far given more than a hundred fifty million dollars to them." As the discussion continued, Nixon showed progressively more venom toward the elite." He said that "the elite of the United States are least capable of governing the United States," and then paraphrased Tolstoy, saying, "Every individual is basically two people; he has creative and destructive instincts.... The secret in life is to sublimate the destructive instincts, for the same energies that can build can destroy." Davis, obviously impressed, agreed to help the president-although he had no way of knowing at the time exactly what it would entail.

On August 20, after Sammy Davis, Jr., had agreed to go to Vietnam for the administration, Jeffrey Donfeld sent a memo to various agencies of the government stating that Davis "will integrate into his show the anti-drug items which are of special importance to our government. I would therefore like to ask you to submit to me brief vignettes or brief messages or even anecdotes which will get across messages of particular concern to your department. Officials of the government responded to the White House by writing sketches for Davis. John Ingersoll suggested such anecdotal situations as the following:

 A known drug abuser appears at a large conference on drug abuse prevention. His dress was extreme in the hippie sense and he insisted on taking the floor to criticize all printed information available to the public. He was particularly incensed by an Ad Council piece entitled "Diagram of a Drug Abuser" . . . he took it apart item by item. What was cynically amusing was that he personally mirrored every fact he challenged. He wore dark glasses, his nose was noticeably red, he sniffed at every verbal pause, he was emaciated, and wore a long-sleeve hippie costume. He lit a cigarette with hands shaking so badly that he had to hold the match with the other hand. He closed with the impassioned statement, "I say they should tell it like it is. . . ." 

Ingersoll also enclosed a "tongue-in-cheek quiz" and a "Laugh-In format" for a film entitled Pot Is a Put-On. The Defense Department suggested "incorporating a comedy routine around one of Davis' more well known themes, "Here Comes De Judge," but, more modest than the BNDD, it also suggested employing the talents of "a professional comedy writer."

While Sammy Davis's October trip to Vietnam was being planned, the White House attempted to arrange a television show for Davis, with presidential participation, on drugs. To sponsor this program, Jeffrey Donfeld approached Ira Englander, of the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical company (which manufactures Valium), and Perry Lieber, the president of the Hughes Sports Network (Hughes being a long-time supporter of President Nixon's campaigns). Although both showed great interest in the Nixon-Sammy Davis program, they were unwilling to provide all the funds for production costs. Donfeld thus stated, in a rather pessimistic memorandum to Egil Krogh, on October 21, 197 1, "Unless someone on Chuck Colson's staff can come up with the production costs and arrange for network time, this project may never be launched." Colson, however, showed little enthusiasm for raising money for the television spectacular especially since it would be to the credit of Egil Krogh rather than himself. All President Nixon eventually received from the Sammy Davis connection was a loving embrace on television at election time The lack of a slush fund to finance such activities as the Sammy Davis special concerned John Ehrlichman. Donfeld had suggested in an earlier memorandum that "there is a feeler by the drug industry to donate funds to a drive to be used in the fight against drug abuse." Although the government was restricted by law from accepting these funds for a specific purpose, Donfeld suggested that "if a foundation existed, we could recommend that such profits go there." Ehrlichman became interested in the idea of creating such a foundation, not only for the funds which it would attract but because it would increase the president's visibility on the antidrug issue. He thus recommended to Nixon that ' "in order to firmly and continually place the President in the forefront of those concerned with drug abuse, it is suggested that the White House encourage the establishment of a drug abuse foundation to which the President would have close association. The concept is similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's association with the March of Dimes." The president immediately approved the idea of creating a March of Dollars for a national drug foundation, and assigned the project to Egil Krogh. In his June 30 (1971) proposal for creating the foundation, Krogh estimated "that three million dollars would be available from industry sources as feed money. It is reasonable to assume that the foundation could raise twenty-five million dollars over three years. These funds would not come from traditional political sources." In asking for direct presidential involvement on the board of directors of the planned foundation, Krogh noted that "drug abuse is of paramount concern in the public mind.... Presidential involvement would crystallize support on a positive issue." Since presidential involvement meant in practical terms being photographed by the press, Haldeman approved the 1. photo opportunity ... in a location other than the White House, such as the National Press Club." Bruce Kehrli, another White House public-relations strategist, commented on the proposal, "Although ... it isn't the ultimate solution in terms of substance, it should provide a hype for the P.R. side of the drug abuse issue, since the President's initiative [June 17, 1971] got only moderate coverage because of the breaking of the New York Times [Pentagon Papers] story." This promising project, however, was jettisoned when Tex McCrary, who was to be the fund-raiser for the foundation, inadvertently told a journalist about the plan to raise money from the drug to wage the heroin crusade. As Donfeld pointed out in a February 4, 1972, memorandum, "Once it becomes known that we are courting the pharmaceutical industry, the integrity of the project is impugned," and he recommended that "someone turn off McCrary." Even though by this time Gen. William Westmoreland and Tricia Nixon had been mobilized for the March of Dollars, Haldeman decided reluctantly to "turn off" the foundation idea. 

As it turned out, narcotics did not prove to be as great a lure for attracting celebrities and finances as the Nixon strategists had hoped.

  As the 1972 election approached, and corporations contributed, illicitly, tens of millions of dollars to the Nixon reelection campaign, and celebrities joined the political bandwagon, the "celebrity file" was closed.




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