Donald Trump and the Boy Scouts

Published 9:47 am Friday, September 15, 2017

By TJ Ray

When I was a boy, somehow my parents got enough money to send me to the 1953 Boy Scout Jamboree in California. Jamboree saw 45,000 folks gather for a busy encampment. One highlight of it was the constant visits of stars from nearby Hollywood. I remember standing by Johnny Mack Brown’s convertible as he signed autographs. The biggest names to visit were Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Nixon even stayed overnight to fix breakfast for the Scouts from his hometown.

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This year the Jamboree was in West Virginia, and as in seven other Jamborees, the featured speaker at the giant arena show was the President. That offered every Scout and his leader a chance to see the sitting head of our country. Understandably a big deal, offering a golden opportunity to make a good impression on my minds and hearts.

But it didn’t quite work out like that.

Moving about 28,000 Scouts and leaders from all over the vast encampment to a cleared arena was complicated. First, Jamboree was locked down for most of the day.

Regular events scheduled for the boys closed at 10 a.m. Troops started lining up in roads near their campsites by 2 p.m.

Finally, after all the special music, the moment came for Mr. Trump to speak. One of his opening remarks: “Tonight we put aside all of the policy fights in Washington, D.C. you’ve been hearing about with the fake news and all of that. We’re going to put that … (APPLAUSE) We’re going to put that aside. And instead, we’re going to talk about success, about how all of you amazing young Scouts can achieve your dreams, what to think of, what I’ve been thinking about. You want to achieve your dreams, I said, who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts? Right?”

I wasn’t there so I can’t guess “who the hell wants to speak about politics,” but that is exactly what he did for the remainder of his talk. He did throw out the names of leaders in Washington who had been Scouts. From there on the speech was about the miracle of the election and a rehearsal of all the talk about red states and blue states and maps. And nearly every sentence had as its core the important word “I.” President Trump joked about firing HHS Sec. Tom Price if he doesn’t get the votes to “kill this horrible thing known as Obamacare. One of his questions to the audience was “Did Obama ever come to a Jamboree?” which triggered a loud booing.

One can only ponder at the shock most adults in the crowd felt. The backlash from Trump’s intemperate bragging later prompted the top executive of BSA to apologize to everyone: “I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree,” he wrote. He added, “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.”

I’d like to add some words from someone who is very special to me. I watched him grow and become an Eagle Scout. I saw him become a professional Scouter for a while. Now he mostly writes. For BSA he has rewritten the Boy Scout Handbook, the two-volume Scoutmaster’s Handbook. He has a monthly column in Scouting, the magazine for leaders, and another piece in the Eagle Scout magazine each month. Here’s what he posted online: “I’ve worked with young people my whole adult life, both in Scouting and in church, so I’m very good at keeping my political opinions to myself — and certainly off social media. As I said in a blog post several years ago, ‘You’ll never see me post anything online that wouldn’t be appropriate for the youngest Scout to read, and if you want to know about my political leanings or adult-beverage preferences, you’ll have to ask.’

That said, I’ve had enough people ask me about President Trump’s speech at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree that I feel compelled to say something. Or a few things, actually.

My first thought is that Mr. Trump’s political comments were absolutely inappropriate — just as political comments from a Democratic president would have been in this setting.

The Boy Scouts of America is, by its very nature, an apolitical organization, founded to ‘to promote, through organization, and cooperation with other agencies, the ability of boys to do things for themselves and others, to train them in scoutcraft, and to teach them patriotism, courage, self-reliance and kindred virtues,’ according to its 1916 federal charter. Beyond congratulating the Scouts on their achievements and encouraging them to continue to serve their country, there’s nothing more a president should say in this setting. (By the way, the jamboree included more than 700 international Scouts, making Mr. Trump’s ‘America first’ message even more inappropriate.)

My second thought is that I HATE these presidential visits to jamborees — and I’ve been through a few of them, having attended six jamborees from 1981 through 2013. They are logistical nightmares that turn the program upside down. Mr. Trump’s visit required several program areas to shut down as early as 10 a.m. on the day of his visit, and many troops had to leave their campsites as early as 2 p.m. in order to get through security. And that’s not even as bad as the jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill where we had to do an extra mobilization because the president’s schedule didn’t align with the two planned arena shows. My biggest memory of that day is the Scouts who were passing out in the blazing Virginia heat.

My third thought — and probably the most important — is that the furor surrounding Mr. Trump’s speech has obscured what a diverse organization Scouting is today. Because Mr. Trump got some of the Scouts to boo President Obama, there’s a sense that all Scouts are Republicans. Because he talked (for some odd reason) about Christmas, there’s a sense that Scouting is an exclusively Christian organization. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Mr. Trump was speaking, I happened to be transcribing an interview with a Scouter who works with an inner-city troop in Massachusetts where families speak at least six languages. She described in moving terms how these children of immigrants are going on to become the first members of their families to graduate from college. In the past, I’ve interviewed Muslim and Sikh Scouters who have found Scouting to be a warm, welcoming place.

At the 2010 jamboree, for example, Abdul-Rashid Abdullah helped run a mosque set up on site, where kids of all faiths could learn about Islam. He told me later, ‘Through Scouting, people of diverse cultures and diverse faiths can come together and learn from one another, learn to respect one another, and live together.’

At the 2013 jamboree, volunteers at the Sikh exhibit helped 1,500 Scouts learn to tie turbans. ‘We had turbaned kids running up and down the slope playing Frisbee,’ Kavneet Pannu told me. ‘The zip line was above us, and we could see turbans on the zip line. Some kids didn’t remove their turbans for two days because they thought it was the coolest thing.’

In our hyper-politicized age, groups of all stripes want to use Scouting to advance their own purposes. As Scouters, it’s our job to keep our purpose clear: to help boys grow up to be men — regardless of how they worship, who they vote for or what adult beverage they prefer.”

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.