Richard Nixon could be quite naïve.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. State Department made jazz legend Louis Armstrong a “Goodwill Ambassador” and underwrote a concert tour in Europe and Asia. On his return from the first two tours, Armstrong and his entourage were waived through customs without a search based on Satchmo’s ambassadorial status, but when he landed at Idlewild Airport in New York in 1958, he was directed toward the customs lines. Customs agents had been tipped off that contraband was being imported into the country. Armstrong joined a long line of travelers lined up for inspections. Unfortunately, the jazz trumpeter was carrying three pounds of marijuana in his suitcase. Once Armstrong realized he was about to be busted and would bring shame on the country he was traveling on behalf of, he began sweating profusely.
Just then the doors swung open and Vice President Richard Nixon, in step with his security detail, swept in the room followed by a gaggle of reporters and photographers. Nixon, seeing an opportunity for a wire-photo with Armstrong, went up to the jazz man. “Satchmo, what are you doing here?” a surprised Nixon asked.
“Well, Pops, (Armstrong called everyone Pops) I just came back from my goodwill ambassador’s tour of Asia and they told me I had to stand in this line for customs.”
Without hesitation, Nixon grabbed both of Satchmo’s suitcases. “Ambassadors don’t have to go through customs and the Vice President of the United States will gladly carry your bags for you,” Nixon said. Whereupon The Vice President “muled” three pounds of pot through United States Customs without ever knowing it.
When Nixon was told what happened by Charles McWhorter, who served as a traveling aide to Nixon (who heard the tale from one of the jazz musicians traveling with Satchmo), a startled Nixon exclaimed, “Louie smokes marijuana?”
Upon the jazz legend’s death in 1971, President Nixon recognized Satchmo’s incomparable contribution to Americana and his creative individuality. ”One of the architects of an American art form, a free and individual spirit, and an artist of worldwide fame, his great talents and magnificent spirit added richness and pleasure to all our lives,” President Nixon said.