A student response to Elvis and Nixon

Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon and the American Dream by Connie Kirchberg and Mark Hendrickx

Guest review by Deshad Cato, Fresno City College Student

I’ve never really been a fan of Richard Nixon or of Elvis Presley. To be honest, I’ve had some rather harsh things to say about both men many a time whenever I was asked my opinions on them. After reading Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream by Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx, I can honestly say that while my opinions of both are as staunch as ever, I have grown to appreciate them as people and for what they accomplished. That alone has allowed me to come to respect the ambitions of this book, even if I at first scoffed at the thought of devoting my time to reading it.

As an American, I enjoy the story of people who came from nothing to achieve everything. It helps inspire me to go after the things I want to achieve in life, and it serves as a parallel to my own life’s story… something I’d never thought I’d say. Elvis and Richard seemed to be kindred spirits, with stories so similar they almost seem made up, from losing their siblings at an early age and loving their mothers unconditionally as well as to having fathers who instilled in them the principle of hard work. It all seems written of the same tablet, born of the same place.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but feel a sort of connection with the two of them. I know the feeling of being “the one” in my immediate family. I understand the notion of not only having to live for yourself, but for your sibling as well. My twin brother, whom I love dearly, is fifteen minutes older than me. He was born with a mental syndrome called Fragile X that hinders physical and intellectual properties. Basically, it’s impossible to pinpoint accurately just how intelligent my brother is because of his condition. Because of that, I’ve always sort of felt that I owe something to him. I’ve always felt that it just as easily could’ve been me that ended up with the syndrome and him being the one writing this essay in my place. Doctors agree, seeing as how the fact that I don’t have Fragile X is, if nothing else, lucky.

I have to imagine that the way I feel about my brother is the way Nixon and Elvis felt about theirs. That feeling of being “the one” drives you to want to do better, if nothing else. In reading the book and seeing just how high up Elvis and Nixon were able to go, I can tell that feeling never left either of them. For Elvis, being a “good musician” just wasn’t good enough. He had to be the best. He had to own the top of the charts for two decades. He had to act in movies. And when it was all over, he had to have a comeback to do it again. For Nixon, it wasn’t enough to be a senator, and a damn good one at that. It wasn’t enough to become the vice president of the United States. Number two wouldn’t do for Nixon; he had to be number one: he had to be president.

But, possibly even more than recognizing myself, I recognized someone else in the book, someone who has played a huge role in my life. I recognized my mother. My mother has always been the overprotective type. I mean, sure, she never walked me to and from school like Elvis’s mother, and I never had to work next to her in a store to provide for my family, but she has always been a big driving force in my life. She and my father separated when I was eight years old, and again when I was sixteen. While I love my father, my mother was the one who helped shape my moral compass while my father was more of the driving force for my academics, and the enforcer of the rules. He taught me how to work, and to always keep myself prepared: “Being ready for things is much more than half the battle,” he would say. “It’s a battle all its own.”

To be really honest, I grew angry while reading this book, and mainly at Nixon.  While reading, I grew to sort of like Nixon. I liked the man he was. I liked his humble beginnings, the way he worked his way through college, how he courted his future wife, and the way he handled himself as a congressman. The more the chapters kept going, the more I found myself admiring him. And then I would remember what I know of him. I would remember how his power ultimately came to corrupt him, how it eventually destroyed him. Before, despising Nixon was easy, it was second nature. Now it’s not so easy. Now that I know that I can identify with him on so many key issues, it’s hard to judge him. It leaves me with a bittersweet feeling that I could do without, but am glad to have anyway.

The book also changed my perception of Elvis. For as long as I can remember, I have harbored a deep resentment for Elvis, even though I hadn’t really ever taken the time to research about him. I resented him because of what he represented, a white man making millions from black music at a time when blacks were looked at as inferior to whites in every way. I never really took the time to understand just who what kind of person Elvis was, or why he was so loved. It turns out Elvis was a good man who actually tried to give credit where credit was due. Being young, white, and bred from a much segregated South, it’s simply amazing that he turned out the way he did, and that he appreciated the works of black people so much that he tried to incorporate them into his artistic and business dealings.

I realize now that Elvis wasn’t so much a bad person as a person who benefited from the dealings of bad people, which is something I probably would’ve never realized if I hadn’t been given this book. Truly, I’m glad I was given the chance to read it. The fact that it managed to bring me to a point where I actually related to two people I had previously disliked is an achievement in its own, but the fact that I enjoyed the read immensely was even better. I loved how even-handed the book was, and didn’t lean towards praise for either man. I can safely say that if this book boiled down to nothing more than a love letter to Nixon and Elvis, I would’ve put it down early on and never have looked back. But the fact-based way all the views are presented really helped me to go along for the journey that it promised to deliver. I don’t think I’ll ever be a cheerleader for Elvis and Nixon, but I can definitely appreciate the things they managed to accomplish.

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