President Trump opened his speech before the National Scout 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 first National Jamboree, held on the Mall in 1937. At that gathering, Scouts from each of the 48 states brought wood and built a collective campfire, which was lit by Dan Beard, a founder of the Boy Scouts of America, using only flint and steel. Attorney General Homer Cummings delivered Roosevelt’s words, urging the boys to carry home with them the spirit of the Jamboree, “for sooner than we who are older realize, you will assume the full responsibilities of citizenship.” Since then, seven of the 11 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 challenge 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. He complained about “fake polls” and “fake news.” 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, Neb., 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. Eventually, my dad completed his Eagle award, went on to receive his Silver Award in Explorers (a more senior level of the Boy Scouts), and made two trips to Philmont Scout Ranch, the original Boy Scout high adventure camp in New Mexico, seen as the pinnacle of Scout hiking and camping. In 1957, he capped his Boy Scout career by attending the National Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pa.
Even after my dad went away to college and started a family of his own, my grandfather continued as a Scoutmaster. He was awarded Scouting’s top honor for leaders at the council level, the Silver Beaver. Then the town of Bayard named the community center, where the Boy Scouts still meet, in his honor: Genoways Hall. The area Scout council established the Ted Genoways Youth Leadership Award. 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 Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia 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, and he’s already looking ahead. As senior patrol leader at camp this summer, he started pushing the idea of attending Philmont, and he’s been researching upcoming Jamborees. He was crushed when he found he’d missed the sign-up date for the 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 the president turn the largest gathering of Boy Scouts into a political rally, as if they had come only to see him. It’s a desecration of our family tradition and of more than a century of Scouting tradition. Worst of all, Trump did it for no reason and without a second thought. He made the National Jamboree about himself because he makes everything about himself.
Don’t misunderstand me: The Boy Scouts of America is far from a perfect organization. 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 began 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 a 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 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. The BSA apologized on Thursday for the fact that “politics were inserted into the Scouting program.” The organization had to be clear: Scouting is open to all boys, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation.
Trump might know that, if he had been a Boy Scout — or had ever supported his sons’ interest in the organization. Instead, the only time Trump had any previous dealings with the Boy Scouts was when Donald 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 that the president and his sons didn’t stick with Boy Scouts long enough for Trump to understand that Scouting is a vestige of an older world, before everything became imbued with partisan significance. Today, your political allegiance is defined not only by how you vote but by which church you attend, where your kids go to school, which TV channels you watch, what kind of coffee you drink. When I was a kid, Scouts was a welcome haven, a place to establish shared values. Trump told the Jamboree crowd that liberals in this country don’t understand “the forgotten people,” and now, “they’re going crazy trying to figure it out.” But 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.