Seventy years ago this Tuesday, John Birch became one of the Cold War’s first casualties. When the United States entered World War II, Birch, a Baptist missionary in China, also became an intelligence officer, scouting Japanese movements for the Air Force. Birch’s zeal — he was equally contemptuous of biblical heresy, Japanese imperialism, and communism — made him simultaneously valuable and difficult. On Aug. 25, 1945, during a confrontation with Chinese Communist soldiers, Birch was shot and killed.
He might have remained a footnote to history, but 13 years later, Massachusetts-born candy magnate Robert W. Welch Jr., chose Birch as the patron saint of a new, far-right, anti-communist organization, the John Birch Society.
In Welch’s abstraction, John Birch also lent satirical juice to an unlikely presidential candidate: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The redoubtable bebop and
Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer, armed with a surplus stock of promotional “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons, announced his candidacy at a 1963 Chicago rally, then campaigned via concert tour. (One stop, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, produced the live album “Dizzy for President.”) Gillespie spiced his voluble stage patter with political goofing; vocalist Jon Hendricks rewrote Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” as “Vote Dizzy.” (“Show the Republic where it is/Give them a Democratic Diz.”)
The John Birch connection? That came from Dizzy’s birth name: John Birks Gillespie. “John Birks Societies” sprung up across the country.
Gillespie campaigned with tongue in cheek, but only loosely. Proceeds from campaign-button sales benefited the Committee on Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And it was a time when even stunt presidential candidates had policy proposals. While some of Gillespie’s promises were provocations (Malcolm X as attorney general, Miles Davis as head of the CIA), others addressed the foundations of inequality and disenfranchisement in practical terms: universal health care, subsidized college tuition.
Gillespie’s foreign policy was one to horrify the John Birch Society: peace, disarmament, normalized relations with communist regimes. Quixotic? Just this month, the American flag again rose over an embassy in Cuba. (Dizzy got there first — his 1985 visit, eight years before his death, was filmed for the documentary “A Night in Havana.”) Gillespie’s 1964 campaign fizzled, and a 1972 run tripped on Gillespie’s Bahá’í faith, but the current, crowded presidential field could use such a cheerful prophet. Now more than ever: Vote Dizzy!
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.