The Troy Street Observer

Super Tuesday Special: Dizzy for President

Photo of Dizzy Gillespie
“Goldwater was running against Johnson… but at the time, I didn’t think there was any choice. I was the only choice for a thinking man.”

So it’s Super Tuesday and the electoral circus has come to Massachusetts, and this year it’s brought along even more clowns than usual. We can’t keep the clowns out of the circus, but sometimes genuine humorists—Will Rogers, Gracie Allen, Pat Paulsen—make the trip too. Today, though, I’d like to remember one who brought us mirth, but with it a serious platform. That was John Birks Gillespie, and the year was 1964.

Gillespie was asked why he was running for President. His answer: “Because we need one.”

Dizzy’s campaign began when the Associated Booking Agency started passing out “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons. When one was visible on a prominent lapel during the 1963 March on Washington, a few people, including Gillespie, saw an opportunity to spread a message. Before long, there was a John Birks Society in California working to get him on the 1964 ballot. He had a campaign manager, Jeannie Gleason, and a campaign publicist, her husband, the journalist Ralph Gleason.

The Gillespie Platform

At the core of Dizzy’s campaign was the movement to bring an end to discrimination, and he believed economic pressure was one way to go about it. He advocated using widespread consumer boycotts: institutions otherwise indifferent to the plight of the disadvantaged would work to end discriminatory practices if their bottom line was jeopardized.

Dizzy also advocated lowering the income tax by instituting a national lottery. He wanted to legalize playing the numbers, since millions of dollars were already being spent on them daily anyway. He was ahead of the curve—New Hampshire passed the very first state-operated lottery in the U.S. in 1964, just months before Dizzy called for a national one.

Here are a few more planks in the Gillespie platform (The quotes are from his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, or from an article published in the November 5, 1964 issue of Down Beat):

  • On battling discrimination through education: “They don’t teach the kids about the dignity of all men everywhere… I say education, yes; but the white people are the ones who should be educated into how to treat every man.”
  • On national health and welfare: “I would like to see that everyone had enough to eat and some clothes and a decent place to stay. Everybody, every citizen, is entitled to that. Education would be beautiful, free, subsidized by the government. All of it. Anytime you wanted to learn something, I’d pay you to do it. Hospitalization would also be free.”
  • On foreign policy: Gillespie advocated resuming relations with Cuba, and recognizing Communist China because it would make economic sense. (“All of a sudden you wake up and there’s 700 million more people to sell something to.”) He opposed American involvement in Vietnam: “If I were President, I’d get out of there. I’d say, look, y’all got it, baby. Yeah, good luck.” I do not know the date of that Down Beat interview, but it is likely that it took place in August 1964, when the senate was considering, or had just passed, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which cleared the way for our massive military buildup.

He had no love for Republican nominee Barry Goldwater: “I think his program stinks. I think the senator’s program is ultraconservative; I think that Sen. Goldwater wants to take us back to the horse-and-buggy days when we are in the space age.” And as far as staunch segregationist Gov George Wallace of Alabama was concerned: “We will recommend a special act of Congress to revoke the citizenship of George Wallace and deport him to Vietnam.”

Dizzy Names His Team

Twenty years before Geraldine Ferraro, Gillespie wanted a woman on the ticket. He told Down Beat that he had approached comedian Phyllis Diller to be his running mate, but he doesn’t mention how that worked out in his autobiography. What a press conference that might have been!

Gillespie named his cabinet well before election day: Malcolm X as Attorney General, Duke Ellington as Minister of State (“he’s a natural and can con anybody”), Max Roach as Minister of Defense, Charles Mingus as Minister of Peace (“Anybody have any objections to that? I think it would get through the Senate. Right through.”), Peggy Lee as Minister of Labor, and Ella Fitzgerald for Health, Education and Welfare.

Dizzy also named Miles Davis as director of the CIA (“Oh, honey, you know his schtick. He’s ready for that position. He’d know just what to do in that position.”), Mary Lou Williams as ambassador to the Vatican, Ray Charles as director of the Library of Congress, and Thelonius Monk as Roving Ambassador Plenipotentiary, who, the dictionary reminds us, is “a diplomat invested with the full power of independent action on behalf of their government, typically in a foreign country.” He wanted Ramona Crowell, one of the campaign’s founders (and its sweatshirt designer), to be his chief of staff.

Gillespie was having fun, as always, but he was dead serious, too. He viewed the publicity generated by his candidacy, and the voters behind it, as a tool for pushing the Democrats forward on civil rights. I’m guessing here, but Gillespie’s campaign probably lost steam after enactment of the momentous Civil Rights Act of 1964 that July. After that, Dizzy could proclaim: “I never thought the time would come when I’d vote for Lyndon B. But I’d rather burn in hell, than vote for Barry G.”

Lyndon B, of course, won in a landslide.

We know what Gillespie thought about Goldwater and Wallace. We can only imagine the disdain he’d have for the clowns of 2016.

Let’s forget about clowns. Here’s Dizzy’s “And Then She Stopped,” with the band he had when he made his presidential run. Some nice flute work here from James Moody. The video says it was recorded in 1965, but dig the woman holding the “Dizzy Gillespie for President” balloon in the last shot!

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