A little more than a year ago, John Philip Sousa IV, the great-grandson of the American March King, was sitting around with his politically like-minded friends when they began to hatch a plan. In 2012, Sousa and company had started Americans for Sheriff Joe, a political action committee aimed at helping controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio—bane of immigration reformers, hero of border-fence hard-liners—win reelection and battle a recall fight. Sousa and friends had raised $1 million for the cause. Now they were unsure what to do next.
"Someone said, 'Do you remember that National Prayer Breakfast a handful of months ago and that doctor—what was his name?' " Sousa recalls. They were referring to Ben Carson, the respected Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who had become an overnight cause célèbre among conservatives after he railed against political correctness at a prayer breakfast last year while President Obama sat a few seats away. Sousa and friends did their homework on Carson, and they liked what they saw. "If I had more time, I'd stalk the guy, just to listen to him talk. He's so inspiring and so smart," Sousa gushes.
Instead of stalking, Sousa became chair of the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee—which has proved a wildly successful undertaking. So far this year, the organization ranks in the top ten for super PAC fundraising, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. A spokesman for the committee says the group has raised $7.2 million; its Facebook page currently has more than 152,000 likes. Sousa says there are "15,000 active volunteers" for the organization who might show up at political conventions to stump for the not-yet-declared candidate or turn out to greet him at his book signings.
Carson and Sousa are not buddies. In Sousa's telling, the two have met just once, last year, at a conference in Washington. Still, "he's very cognizant of who we are and what we're doing," Sousa says. "He gets asked about us every other day in the media." Carson, for his part, told Greta Van Susteren last year that he was "not going to interfere one way or another" with the efforts of the draft movement.
Sousa, 66, first fell in love with politics after volunteering on his aunt's campaign for a spot on a community-college board of trustees in 1971. Three years later, he took his own shot at higher office. "I was 24, and I was unemployed and pretty broke, and my landlord came up to my door and said, 'The congressman isn't running for reelection, why don't you run?' " Sousa recalls. "I said, 'Great idea, I need a job.' " But this was the height of the Watergate era, and Sousa was running as a Republican in California. "Not the smartest thing I have ever done," he says, "but it was one of the best experiences in my life."
After his failed bid for Congress, he began a career as a financial consultant. It took him longer to get in touch with his famous roots. Sousa's parents separated when he was a kid; he and his mother moved to California, far from his father. Beyond a few ceremonial honors—when he was 11, Sousa was invited to direct the Marine Corps Band on the Capitol steps—he didn't know much about his great-grandfather until later in life. "It sounds terrible to say," Sousa says, "but I was in my early 50s before I really started to grasp who and what my great-grandfather is and was."
In 2000, the head musicologist at the Library of Congress invited him to Washington for a performance of his great-grandfather's music. When Sousa got there, the director handed him a narration to read during the event. "While I'm sure I absolutely sucked, the audience really seemed to enjoy this," he says. He started meeting other band directors around the country; now he narrates 10 to 15 concerts a year. The narrations sparked his interest, and soon he was delivering talks to schools and community groups, asking whether John Philip Sousa was America's first rock star. (In the estimation of many Sousa experts, he was.) That inspired a book of history, John Philip Sousa's America, which John Philip Sousa IV cowrote and released in 2012.
"It sounds terrible to say, but I was in my early 50s before I really started to grasp who and what my great-grandfather is and was."
Some Sousa scholars presume he was a Republican, but he wasn't a brazen partisan; he managed his image in a way that was appealing to the mainstream. He was certainly fiercely patriotic, and he took his role as an ambassador of American culture far too seriously to have been anything less than sincere. In his autobiography, Marching Along, he wrote of his belief in the supremacy of America over Europe. Europe, he wrote, had come up with the "tallow candle, but like grateful children we sent in return the electric light; Europe gave us the primitive hand-power printing press of Gutenberg and in our simple-hearted way we showed her the Goss perfecting press … Europe put the bare needle in our fingers and we reciprocate with the modern sewing machine."
His musicianship, meanwhile, seems to have encouraged a belief in self-reliance. "If a musician, a writer, or a painter, has anything in him, he will dig it out of himself, if the State will only let him starve long enough," he wrote. According to historian Neil Harris, Sousa once told a newspaper reporter that "bohemianism has ruined more great minds then any one other thing in the world."
Sousa the IV is certain his great-grandfather would be mortified by the current state of the nation. "Political correctness—in my view, and in Dr. Carson's view, because he's said so 1,000 times—has run amok today. It's just stupid. It really infringes upon freedom of speech, because people are afraid to say things, and they shouldn't be," he says. "I think Great-Grandfather is probably not rolling over in his grave—he's probably spinning in his grave."
"I've never heard so many people call so many other people a racist since Barack Obama got elected into office, and he doesn't do anything about it," Sousa says. In his telling, the media is no help. "The media was all over Tim Tebow because he was a Christian, and he got down on one knee after a play—they couldn't stand it! And they were fawning all over this gay NFL player like it was the most wonderful thing in the world! I don't care if the guy is gay, but let's balance it out a little!"
On his Facebook page, Sousa, a prolific poster, does his best to balance it out a little. Recently, he wrote of the 52,000 unaccompanied minors living in Texas: "What a horror story, tens of thousands of kids (with perhaps 300,000 more on the way), kids with highly contagious illnesses, gang members anxious to rape and pillage throughout the US." Referring to Obama, he added, "As usual, so pissed … so very pissed at what this clown is doing to our country." It's not exactly the romantic, earnest patriotism we tend to associate with the original John Philip Sousa. But his great-grandson seems convinced that, if he were alive today, the two of them would be marching to the same beat.
This article appears in the July 19, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Descendant.