A lesson in humility and meritocracy, Marine style
Col. John R. Bourgeois, USMC (ret.) has just had his autobiography published: Play On! A Marine's Musical Journey from the Bayou to the White House. Colonel Bourgeois was the twenty-fifth director of the Marine band, known as the President's Own. Since its founding with the birth of our country, there have been only twenty-eight directors, including the legendary John Phillip Sousa. As he points out in his autobiography, the Marine Band is the oldest musical organization of any type in the United States and "[t]he Director of the Marine Band is the music advisor to the White House[.] ... He is the authority regarding proper ceremonial music and protocol for state occasions and other 'in house' activities."
As former Marine commandant Charles Krulak said with a profound grasp of history, "[o]nly two names stand alone as the epitome of professionalism, musical acumen, creativity, and leadership: John Phillip Sousa and John R. Bourgeois."
As the title says, John Bourgeois made his was from a wonderful part of America alive with all kinds of music; New Orleans and southern Louisiana, to enlist in the United States Marine Corps during the Eisenhower Presidency. The reason why this book is so significant in today's revisionist virtue-posturing cancel culture, enforced by many lesser lights writing in our current American arts and letters forums, is that with grace insight and dignity John Bourgeois's journey as Director brought him into direct contact with many presidents. There is a very powerful uniquely American historical legacy captured by his life's journey.
After going through Marine boot camp with Eisenhower as president, he may now be one of the last musicians left who personally witnessed one of the most famous White House musical events ever: President and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's historic Pablo Casals concert, which signaled "that the White House wished to participate in the cultural life of the nation." Joining in that historic moment were many names eternally famous in American music — composers such as Aaron Copeland, along with conductors Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, and Leopold Stokowski, and with classical musicians such as violinist Alexander Schneider and pianist Mirczyslaw Horszowski playing.
It is so sad that in today's symbolic and even more horrific actual smash-mouth politics against our presidents regardless of political party, it takes an original source who was present and directly working for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (41), and Bill Clinton to remind us all that they are men at a most basic human level and all were sincerely enthralled and captured by the pure power and joy of great music.
There is not a hint of political posturing or score-settling in this book, and each president is presented as a man who along with his family was always gracious in expressing gratitude to the Marines who bring them and America and even the world so much joy. I challenged all to watch our Fourth of July fireworks while bands throughout our nation play Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" or "Semper Fidelis" march or even, yes, "The Washington Post March" to feel deep pride in what we as a nation have accomplished for all humanity.
It is time to take a moment and recognize that the cliché "people are people" is so, so true, even for our presidents.
There is a powerful, lasting historical gift to America in this book. I did not know but learned in reading Col. Bourgeois's fascinating and historical many-storied chapters and deeply profound moments of the Marine Band that there was something unifying and powerful in a song Abraham Lincoln told the Marine Corps Band to play:
On 9 April 1865, after the surrender of Robert E Lee, the Marine Band and a great exuberant crowd assembled on the White House Lawn calling for the president. He appeared at the window and addressed the crowd ending his remarks by commanding the Band to play "Dixie" because, he said it is a good tune and now belongs to the nation.
Eleven days later, the Band led President Lincoln's funeral procession.
It is such historic truths that we all are currently in danger of losing during this mindless time of hateful anger directed at our glorious and still ever dynamically going forward historical accomplishments of America, evermore the greatest hope for all humanity.