Lavinia Falck had spent six days at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, getting to know teenagers from around the world. Then, she and her friends gathered on the grass to hear from a special guest: the president of the United States.
“By the way, just a question, did President Obama ever come to a Jamboree?” President Trump said during a rambling speech Monday in which he used harsh language, recounted election-night victories and New York cocktail parties, and attacked his political opponents.
“Everyone around me was booing,” said Falck, 17, a member of the co-ed Venture Scout program run by the Boy Scouts. She remembered looking at her new friends and wishing she’d been allowed to stay at her bunk, noting that the booing for Obama was particularly upsetting because attendees had been directed not to jeer Trump. “Scouts are supposed to be courteous and friendly and all these things, and it was really un-Scoutlike for everyone around me to boo.”
Trump’s speech at the Jamboree in Mount Hope, W.Va., broke with years of tradition — presidential traditions and Scouting traditions both. Past presidents had used these moments to extol American exceptionalism and civic virtues — such as service and honesty — that have long been pillars of the Boy Scout ethos.
Trump did a little of that before veering into a speech about his own exceptionalism.
“It pivoted to essentially a typical Trump rally. And it was not a campaign-rally audience. It was an audience of young boys and young men, who’ve come from around the country to celebrate Scouting,” said Robert Birkby, a former Eagle Scout who wrote three editions of the Boy Scout Handbook. “He did not share in the event. He shared of himself.”
By Tuesday, Trump’s speech had prompted a backlash from many current and former Scouts and their families, who say it was not only inappropriate but also undermines efforts to diversify and modernize the century-old organization.
On social media and in interviews, many said they thought national leaders should have cut short or condemned the speech, which included strong language — “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” — and a reference to cocktail parties attended by “the hottest people in New York.” Trump at times tried to raise issues more traditionally discussed at Boy Scout gatherings, such as character and perseverance. But he also lingered on his campaign fight against Democrat Hillary Clinton and seemingly joked about firing his health and human services secretary over Republicans’ inability, so far, to pass health-care legislation.
In a statement Tuesday, the Boy Scouts of America called itself “wholly nonpartisan” and said it is routine to invite the president to its Jamboree, which occurs every four years at the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve. Obama provided a video statement during a previous Jamboree.
“This 80-year-old custom of inviting Presidents to speak to Scouts is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. Rather, the speaking invitation is based on our Duty to Country, from the Scout Oath, and out of respect for the Office of the President of the United States,” the organization said.
“As one of America’s largest youth-serving organizations,” the statement continued, “the Boy Scouts of America reflects a number of cultures and beliefs. We will continue to be respectful of the wide variety of viewpoints in this country.”
Randall Stephenson, national president of the Boy Scouts of America and chairman and chief executive of AT&T, declined to comment via an AT&T spokesman Tuesday. His company is trying to complete an $85 billion merger with Time Warner — a settlement the Justice Department is evaluating, using its antitrust powers. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is an Eagle Scout and also was president of the Boy Scouts from 2010 to 2012; Tillerson visited the Jamboree last week for the unveiling of a statue in his honor.
By midday Tuesday, the organization’s Facebook page included hundreds of comments from former Scouts and parents of Scouts, calling for the organization to make a stronger statement condemning the speech. Many threatened to pull out of Scouting.
The controversy comes as the venerable organization, which has promoted civic engagement and character development among children since 1910, strives to stay relevant and appear inclusive. Membership in the Boy Scouts has dwindled by a third since 2000, to just more than 2 million as of 2016.
The organization has sought to reach out to Hispanics through its Valores para Toda la Vida (Values for Life) program. It founded its co-ed Venturing program, which focuses on outdoor exploration for teens and young adults, in 1998 and has opened some of its other programs to girls, though so far not its prestigious Eagle Scout program. The organization rescinded its ban on gay members in 2014 and in January announced that it will allow transgender members.
The efforts have in part been an effort to keep from driving away parents and students in more liberal areas of the country, said Alvin Townley, a Georgia-based author who wrote “A Legacy of Honor,” a history of the Eagle Scouts, who have earned the highest level of achievement in the organization. He suggested that the political nature of Trump’s speech undermines that goal.
“No president has used the Jamboree as a backdrop to advance a political agenda. And I certainly would not want anyone to misunderstand President Trump’s remarks as anything particularly endorsed by the Boy Scouts of America,” Townley said. “Scouting is a vital institution for America. And Scouting’s vitality relates directly to its inclusion of people from different backgrounds and different perspectives.”
Trump’s remarks were the last straw for at least one former Scout. Eric Styner, 31, who works in quality assurance at a technology company in Seattle, said Tuesday that he had decided to renounce his status as an Eagle Scout. Only a fraction of Scouts reach that rank, which requires them to earn 21 merit badges and complete a major service project, among other tasks. Some of the country’s most prominent leaders, including several members of Trump’s Cabinet, are Eagle Scouts.
Styner said he gradually became alienated from the Scouts, beginning at age 14, when he was rankled by the requirement that a Scout profess a belief in God to pass his Eagle Scout Board of Review. He was further disillusioned when the Scouts held fast to a gay ban even after many states had legalized same-sex marriage. Trump’s speech clinched it, he said.
“He went on for 30 minutes and they didn’t just say, ‘Hey, man, can you just steer it to values and the sorts of things we’re trying to teach these kids rather than being vengeful?’ ” Styner said.
Some defended the organization, saying that it did the right thing by inviting Trump. The problem, they said, was Trump.
“There were parts of the speech that were good, where it tried to be inspirational,” said Gena Brown, 43, a Georgia teacher who has two boys in Scouting. Brown, who serves as a Cub Scout master, watched the speech on YouTube. “But those parts were overshadowed by the mocking of President Obama and Hillary Clinton and the talk about economics and health care and the cocktail parties in New York.”
Among those who liked Trump’s speech was Shelby Lang, 15, also a Venture Scout from Pittsburgh. Her mother, Jennifer, said she got a text immediately after the speech saying, “That was pretty cool.” Trump, the girl wrote, “gave a huge ‘never quit, never give up, do what you love’ speech.”
Jennifer Lang, 43, a history teacher, said she was stunned to see so many negative reviews of the same remarks. “Some of the things the guy said, I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at, but overall it was a positive speech,” she said. “There were some jabs and pokes, and I saw them as more goofy than malicious.”
For Falck, who attended the speech Monday, it was just one way in which Scouting sometimes makes her feel like an outsider, she said. On the first day of the Jamboree, a leader chastised her and her friends for wearing Nike running shorts that the leader said were inappropriately short. But the boys, she said, don’t seem to get the same chiding when they catcall the smaller number of girls present.
Despite her negative experiences, Falck said she plans to stay in the program, which she said has exposed her to amazing new experiences. Just Monday morning, she said, they did a “canopy tour” on a zip line that soared above the dense forest that surrounds the camp.
“I just really like the friends that I’ve made, and I want all the Scouts who do share my views to be able to still have these opportunities and not feel like we got kicked out by a bunch of people who are just acting poorly,” she said.