President Trump opened his speech before the National Jamboree at Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia on Monday with what turned out to be a rhetorical question. “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts, right?”
Trump wasn’t the first president to address a crowd of tens of thousands of Scouts, brought together from all over the country. Franklin D. Roosevelt started the tradition when he wrote a message to the very first National Jamboree, held on the Mall in 1937. Since then, six of the 10 U.S. presidents who were in office at the time of a Jamboree have come in person to address these national gatherings of Scouts. Presidents from both parties have used the opportunity to praise the service and commitment of the boys and challenged them to become young men of even greater character.
Not Trump. He talked about himself. He bragged about “that famous night on television” when he won the election. Apparently still smarting from Inauguration Day, he predicted that the media would underestimate the size of the crowd at the Jamboree. He broached policy discussion by vowing to “start our path toward killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare.” He even went so far as to interrupt a recitation of the Scout Law. “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal,” Trump began. As the assembled Scouts continued to list the virtues to which they are all to aspire, the president interjected, “We could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that”—an apparent reference to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Or perhaps to one of the other slights ricocheting in the president’s head at any given moment. Considering Trump’s past public statements, none of his remarks at the National Jamboree come as any particular surprise—but, for me, they cut especially deep.
My family has been affiliated with the Boy Scouts since 1949. That’s the year my father, then a third-grader in a one-room schoolhouse outside Bayard, Nebraska, begged my grandfather to take him to a membership meeting of the Cub Scouts. When they went, one of the den mothers told my grandfather that they needed a new Cubmaster. “I guess you would say they volunteered my services on the spot,” he told the local paper years later. It was the beginning of 68 years—and counting—of Scouting for my family.
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Eventually, my dad completed his Eagle award, went on to receive his Silver Award in Explorers, and made two trips to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. In 1957, he capped his Boy Scout career by attending the National Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Even after my dad had gone to college and started a family of his own, my grandfather continued as Scoutmaster. When my grandfather died in January 1980, the funeral was packed with Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. I remember my mother pointing to one of the Cub Scouts and saying, “That will be you soon.” In time, I got my Eagle, too, and like my dad, I went to Philmont, and in 1989, I attended the National Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill as a member of the post office staff.
Now my son is in Boy Scouts, probably a year or so away from completing his Eagle. He was crushed when he found he’d missed the sign-up date for National Jamboree this year, but after hearing Trump’s remarks, I’m glad he wasn’t there. I wouldn’t have wanted him to watch Trump turn the largest gathering of Boy Scouts into a political rally, as if they had come together only to see him. It’s a desecration of our family tradition, of more than a century of Scouting tradition.
Don’t misunderstand me: The Boy Scouts of America is far from perfect. It didn’t require the desegregation of all troops until the 1970s. Leadership positions weren’t opened to women until that same time period. Starting in the 1980s, troops started denying membership to gay boys and leadership positions to gay men (a position only fully reversed in 2015). The BSA kept records of possible pedophiles at least as early as 1919 but didn’t release those names, even to parents, until compelled by court order in 2012. In short, the national leadership has often failed to live up to the high ideals of the organization.
But Trump didn’t dishonor the Boy Scouts by falling short of its standards; he made a mockery of the principles themselves. Whether by design or as an act of casual selfishness, Trump enlisted 35,000 children in his political machinations. Online, people responded with jokes about the Hitler Youth and Trump looking out on “a sea of brown shirts” at the Jamboree. Others criticized the boys themselves for applauding. But the simple fact of the matter is: They’re children; he’s the president of the United States. The responsibility for respecting the nonpartisanship of Boy Scouts was his.
Still, the BSA is now in a position of having to disavow statements made by the president as part of an official event. That’s not easy. But the statement issued immediately after the speech—saying that the BSA is “wholly nonpartisan and does not promote any one position, product, service, political candidate or philosophy”—is woefully inadequate. The organization does not need to be harsh, but it needs to be clear: Scouting is open to all boys, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation.
Trump might know that, had he been a Boy Scout himself—or ever supported his sons’ interest in the organization. Instead, the only time that Trump ever had any previous dealings with the Boy Scouts was when Don Jr. joined in 1989. The membership fee was $7 in those days, and Trump appears to have paid it from his charity, rather than from his own pocket.
I’m sorry the president and his sons didn’t stick with Boy Scouts long enough for Trump to understand that Scouting is the vestige of an older world before everything became imbued with partisan significance.
If he truly believes that bringing hate and division into our most cherished nonpartisan organizations is what America wants, then it’s the president who fails to understand the country he has been charged with leading.
Ted Genoways is the author of “This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of An American Family Farm.” He wrote this for the Washington Post.