Star Spangled Birther: Meet John Philip Sousa IV

The patriotic composer's great-grandson runs a PAC backing Sheriff Joe Arpaio and says the jury's still out on President Obama's citizenship.

| Wed Jul. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

On Monday, John Philip Sousa IV stopped by the New York City set of Fox & Friends to talk about his namesake. The great-grandson of the famed composer of "Stars and Stripes Forever," Souza recently published a hardcover volume on the unrivaled master of the patriotic march, which is filled with original photographs, manuscripts, and illustrations. With Independence Day days away, the timing seemed appropriate.

But viewers of the program in the Phoenix area were treated to another side of Sousa—a television ad that featured the 62-year-old painter and musicologist ambling over a rural portion of the border fence and demonstrating the porousness of America's southern flank. It was part of a $12,000 ad buy bankrolled by Americans for Sheriff Joe, the California-based political action committee Sousa launched in January to help the embattled Maricopa County sheriff win a sixth term. 

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Sousa, who has largely avoided politics since unsuccessfully running for Congress as a Republican 38 years ago, says he's already raised $1 million from more than 40,000 individuals and businesses across the country. (A quarterly filing provided by the group reveals that most of that $1 million went to pay for direct-mail costs.) "I heard from the guy who filed the report for us that our report was almost the size of Obamacare, at 2,200 pages," he says.

Sousa is an immigration hardliner who notes on his personal web site that "I am tired of pressing one for English, I am tired of looking for the English instructions on boxes. If you don't speak English or you are not willing to learn English, I would strongly suspect that you should not be a permanent resident in the United States of America."

In Arpaio, Sousa found an anti-immigration champion who's not afraid to stand up for what he believes. "We had read lots about [Hispanic civil rights group] La Raza going after Sheriff Joe, about George Soros going after Sheriff Joe, about Eric Holder going after Sheriff Joe, about Obama not liking Sheriff Joe and wanting him replaced," Sousa says in an interview, explaining the genesis of his PAC. "And the immigration issues of this country are not getting fixed—not that he can fix them, but at least he enforces the laws of this country."

"Should these people be called 'wetbacks'? No. Should I be called an m-f-er by a couple of Hispanic girls? Probably not."

The Department of Justice wasn't blindly speculating about Arpaio's misdeeds, though. In December, the head of the agency's civil rights division, Thomas Perez, held a press conference to announce that its investigation had determined that Arpaio's office "implemented practices that treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented, regardless of whether a legitimate factual basis exists to suspect that a person is undocumented." Corrections officers punished detainees for not speaking English and referred to Latino inmates as "wetbacks" and "Mexican bitches" in email exchanges.

Sousa, though, says the name-calling goes both ways. "Well, I was walking in the mall the other days and two Hispanic ladies called me a 'white motherfucker,'" he says with a laugh. "All this political correctness—this is my opinion now, it's not Americans for Sheriff Joe—it's gone too far. Should these people be called 'wetbacks'? No. Should I be called an m-f-er by a couple of Hispanic girls? Probably not."

He also has no problem with Arpaio's 10-month-and-counting investigation into President Barack Obama's place of birth. (On March 1, the sheriff released a 10-page report, produced by Maricopa County's Cold Case Posse, which purported to show that the long-form birth certificate released by the exasperated Obama administration was in fact a forgery.) "I'm not necessarily a birther person or not, and how I feel about that issue is almost irrelevant," Sousa says, emphasizing that Arpaio's investigation only cost the county $9,600.

When I suggest that people might question the judgment of a law enforcement official who spends his time investigating Internet hoaxes, Sousa demurs. "Well, okay, but if you look at the crime rate in Maricopa and you look at the national respect that this gentleman has—okay, maybe he goes off on an issue that he's interested in, or where he thinks where there's smoke there's fire," he says. "I mean, can you unequivocally say that Obama was born in the United States? I can't!"

He adds: "I don't trust [the documentation]. I don't distrust it. I don't know."

Although Sousa calls the birth certificate probe a distraction from the immigration issue, Americans for Sheriff Joe considers Arpaio's birtherism a selling point. On its website, the PAC touts a June WorldNetDaily article reporting that Arpaio's investigation could result in Obama being thrown off the ballot in Florida. The PAC is even using the story as a fundraising pitch. "Joe Arpaio even conducted his own independent investigation into Obama's 'birth certificate' and found it to be a fraud!" one fundraising letter signed by Souza declares.

"I mean, can you unequivocally say that Obama was born in the United States? I can't!"

The conspiratorial claims broadcast by Souza and his PAC go beyond bitherism. Sousa justifies his involvement in the Maricopa County race by noting that, "When George Soros says he's gonna commit $10 million to defeating Sheriff Joe, that kind of elevates it to a sheriff's race we've never seen in this country." It's a charge the group levels in its fundraising emails and on the "enemies" page of its website, too. When asked for the sourcing behind the claim, the group's executive director, Allen Brandstater, referred me to another fundraising email (by way of the conservative web site Free Republic), from Arpaio's political action committee, JOEPAC. It read in part:

"National groups backed by George Soros have just vowed to spend more than $10 million to defeat Sheriff Joe. In a recent conference call, members of La Raza ('The Race'), ACLU and MoveOn.org said defeating Sheriff Joe was one of their top priorities for 2012—in order to destroy the most potent national symbol in the fight against illegal immigration."

But that appears to be the first mention anywhere of such an effort. Neither the ACLU nor La Raza can even participate in electoral activities because of their non-profit status. MoveOn.org spokesman Nick Berning says "their claim is not true," and that at this point the organization is only "looking closely at the race." Outside the fever swamps of conservative message boards and email chains, there have been no reports of Soros pledging to spend a dime on the Maricopa County race.

Michael Vachon, Soros' spokesman, guffaws at the charge: "$10 million dollars! You've got to be kidding me. I don't know where the rumor comes from but we're not doing that."

Sousa is a regular at parades, concerts, and patriotic shindigs, where he generally sticks to the script in discussing his great-grandfather's legacy. The Fox & Friends appearance, though, underscored the delicate balance between, on the one hand, trumpeting his ancestor, and on the other, using that name to advance his political goals.

"When I do these events, when I narrate concerts, so on and so forth, the words politics, the words Sheriff Joe, nothing comes out of my mouth—it's all about Sousa, it's all America, it's all about the music, it's all about his legacy," he says. "When I was on Fox & Friends…I didn't say anything about politics."

But, he adds, "I was damned tempted to!"

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