Rhinestone Crusader

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Maybe that's what Elvis is doing back on the road with his Seventies show: getting an early jump on the 2004 presidential race, stumping for the Democrats, making sure the next chump doesn't lose Tennessee. Or is he finally going to throw his own rhinestone-studded cape in the ring?

Elvis -- The Concert isn't the first Elvis comeback. That took place at the end of another election year, in December 1968, when NBC televised the singer's first public concert after he'd spent seven years in Hollywood making one bad movie after another. No one could remember him ever looking or sounding better than he did that night. Resplendent in a white suit, Elvis ended with "If I Can Dream," a gospel-infused testament to the power of people to change the world. The decision to close the show with that selection, it was widely reported, was motivated by Elvis's distress over the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy earlier that year. The show was the most watched television special of 1968.

And it came less than a month after Richard Nixon had completed his own comeback from a staggering defeat in the 1960 presidential election. Coincidence? Not really. Just the latest twist in a symbolic fight that began in the mid-Fifties, when the young singer first invaded Nixon's America. It is one of history's poetic ironies that Elvis came to national prominence in the election year of 1956, shaking up the world at the same time President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon were campaigning for re-election and the status quo.

Elvis Presley wasn't an alternative musician; he was an alternative American. He was a refugee from a stepchild region. The Deep South in the mid-Fifties was the most underdeveloped area in the country, and the most maligned. To the rest of the United States, a nation of increasingly educated, increasingly affluent suburbanites riding the crest of what would turn out to be a 25-year economic boom, the South seemed like a strange and separate nation of dirt roads and clapboard shacks populated by redneck farmers, hillbillies, and barefoot illiterates.

So when Elvis Presley's recording contract with a Memphis, Tennessee, label was acquired in late 1955 by RCA Victor, one of the country's biggest music distributors, it was only natural that the singer would become the object of fascination and ridicule. He was a modern-day Huck Finn thrust into a Technicolor wonderland of abundance, an interloper in a new-and-improved postwar United States.

Ike and Nixon won re-election in 1956 and, two years later, drafted Elvis Presley into the United States Army. Even Elvis knew the army was a cracker outfit, a holding cell for dull, desperate, disadvantaged Southern boys. And it was the establishment's way of reminding him that's how it would always regard him, no matter how many hit records he sold or how many Cadillacs he parked in front of Graceland, his newly acquired estate on Highway 51 in Memphis.

In 1960 Elvis returned from the army and Nixon lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy. Nixon went back to practicing law, and Elvis went to Hollywood. Music critics will tell you Elvis was pushed aside in the mid-Sixties by the British invasion but -- look at it this way -- he didn't wait for the Beatles to break up before launching his comeback in late 1968. There must have been some other motivation.

I think it was Nixon's own comeback that revived the King. Tricky Dick, straight out of the repressed and repressive Fifties, was back: demonizing antiwar protesters and civil-rights advocates and promising to bring "law and order" back to the streets -- all with a conspiratorial wink to the white suburban middle class, the "silent majority" that made up his America. Elvis countered by donning jump suits, growing his hair longer than it had ever been in the Fifties, and wearing more jewelry than a roomful of Republican wives. The King's America was loud, proud, and made room for everybody.

Two years later, just before Christmas 1970, Elvis dropped in on Nixon at the White House. Ostensibly there to score an official DEA badge for his collection of law-enforcement memorabilia, the King may have been sizing up Nixon for the 1972 race. The moment was captured in a famous photograph. In the picture the Republican president is dressed, appropriately enough, in a conservative two-button gray suit. His thinning hair is neatly slicked back, and the omnipresent five o'clock shadow has been reset, at least temporarily, to 3:30. Sober and serious, if not especially sincere, Nixon might be mistaken for the chief loan officer of a big city bank.

Elvis is a study in sartorial excess. Large gold pendants dangle from his neck. A dark mod jacket draped around his shoulders recalls the capes the performer so often wore for concert appearances. Beneath the jacket Elvis wears a purple velvet tunic and a white shirt with an impossibly high collar. His face is framed by long hair and muttonchops. A huge gold belt worthy of a heavyweight boxing champion adorns his hips. He looks like he could take Nixon in a landslide. Of course entering the race in 1972 never crossed Elvis's mind. Instead he became something bigger than the president: He became the quintessential man of the people. With his Seventies shows, Elvis attempted to author something like a great American opera. A caped-and-rhinestoned crusader, he set out to create a cultural form that would exclude no one.

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Gaspar González