Much of the media was shocked and horrified by President Trump’s Boy Scout Jamboree speech last week. Many commentators are talking as if Trump’s raucous, free-wheeling spiel exposed underage children to political pornography. Instead of railing against Hillary Clinton and boasting of his victory in last year’s election, Trump supposedly should have delivered the usual “our wonderful political system” speech.
Some people will never forgive Trump for telling Scouts that Washington is a “sewer.” Actually, that message could be an antidote to much of what Scouts usually hear from elected officials. Trump’s speech, insofar as it spurs doubts about political authority, could be far more salutary than prior presidential Jamboree speeches.
When I attended the 1969 Scout Jamboree in Idaho, President Richard Nixon sent us a message praising our idealism. But the type of idealism that Nixon and the Scouts often glorified was more likely to produce servility than liberty. Before being accepted into the Jamboree troop, I was interviewed by adult Scout leaders in a nearby town. The most memorable question was: “What do you think of the Vietnam situation?” Even 12-year-olds had to be screened for dissident tendencies.
The 45 members of Shenandoah Area Council Jamboree troop met for two weekend training sessions before heading west. I was dumbfounded when we spent three hours marching back and forth on a drill field. That time that could have been better spent climbing trees or setting brush fires. There was far more regimentation in this select group than I had experienced in my home troop back in Front Royal, Virginia.
On the Jamboree’s first evening, all the attendees marched into a massive arena for opening ceremonies. I found myself immersed in the biggest herd I ever encountered – 35,000 people, all dutifully striding in the same direction. Being pulled into that vortex literally made me gasp for breath. I knew the same routine would recur for the closing ceremony so I forged a press pass and went to the arena early to avoid marching.
The Idaho Jamboree occurred one month before the Woodstock music festival. Instead of tens of thousands of people chanting antiwar slogans, the Jamboree exalted the military in all its forms. Instead of acres of half-naked hippies, the Scouts were protected by “uniform police” who assured that every boy wore a proper neckerchief at all times. Instead of Joan Baez belting out “We Shall Overcome,” the Scouts listened to “Up with People,” a 125-member singing group created as an antidote to “student unrest and complaining about America.”
The motto for the 1969 Jamboree was “Building to Serve.” But I later wondered: Building to Serve whom? The Jamboree put one government official after another on a pedestal, starting with Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Peter Finch — and extending to anyone with a three-word government title. Letting politicians define the goals and terms converted service into a recipe for servitude.
After the Idaho trip, I lingered in the Scouts long enough to finish the requirements for Eagle rank. The official Eagle Scout pocket card I received included Nixon’s signature as “honorary president” of the Boy Scouts of America. The Scouts presented Nixon with their highest civilian award — the Silver Buffalo — about the same time his aides commenced clandestine operations that would make Watergate a household name.
Scouting has helped toughen millions of boys and I learned a lot about hiking, camping, and scoffing at adversity. But, at the same time, Scouting has too often encouraged unquestioning deference towards authority. Scouts have perennially been used as props to create an impression of popularity and rectitude for politicians.
When President Lyndon Johnson addressed a Scout Jamboree in 1964, he declared that seeing the Scouts’ “smiling, optimistic faces . . . will give me strength that I need in the lonely hours that I spend in attempting to lead this great nation.” Johnson also told the boys that “government is not to be feared.” But Johnson’s Jamboree appearance did not dissuade him from sending half a million troops to Vietnam, where some of the boys who heard his uplifting spiel that day likely pointlessly perished in a war for which LBJ continually deceived the American public.
First Lady Nancy Reagan addressed the Jamboree in 1985 (her husband was recovering from surgery), and told the boys that “No one can use drugs and remain a true Boy Scout . . . Scouts can help save their generation from drugs.” The war on drugs that the Reagans re-ignited helped turn inner cities into war zones and sent millions of Americans to jail and prison. Almost everyone except Attorney General Jeff Sessions now recognizes that folly.
President Bill Clinton addressed the 1997 Jamboree and gushed about the need for doing “good turns” and service — safe pablum for a president who had been hounded by scandals and independent prosecutors for four years (he was impeached the following year). Clinton closed with Washington’s favorite bogus de Tocqueville quote — “America is great because America is good” — the type of empty blather forever cheered by slacker pundits.
President George W. Bush used his 2005 Jamboree speech to recycle War on Terror rhetoric: “You’ll find that confronting injustice and evil requires a vision of goodness and truth… All of you are showing your gratitude for the blessings of freedom.” But the Bush administration had long since demolished constitutional protections for privacy and was secretly championing torture as a key to the victory of good over evil. Regrettably, Bush did not take the opportunity to explain the “commander-in-chief override” doctrine that was secretly guiding his policies.
Three days after Trump’s speech, Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh announced, “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program” and offered “my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended.” But the Scouts have never apologized for the pro-war rhetoric with which presidents and others have often doused boys. Whipping up support for unnecessary foreign conflicts is far more perilous to kids’ health than rude comments about Hillary Clinton.
In the controversy after Trump’s speech, some on the Left have compared the Boy Scouts to the Hitler Youth. But it is unfair to the young folks who heard Trump’s spiel to presume they will become mindless Trump-bots — or even Republicans — in perpetuity. Instead, Trump’s bombast may turn some attendees into lifelong skeptics of any politician on the hustings — a welcome corrective to Scouts’ endless pledges of obedience.
A shorter version of this column originally appeared in USA Today.