Trump’s Boy Scouts speech broke with 80 years of presidential tradition – Washington Post
For 80 years, American presidents have been speaking to the National Scout Jamboree, a gathering of tens of thousands of youngsters from around the world eager to absorb the ideas of service, citizenship and global diplomacy.
In keeping with the Scouts’ traditions, all eight presidents and surrogates who have represented them have stayed far, far away from partisan politics.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the occasion to talk about good citizenship. Harry S. Truman extolled fellowship: “When you work and live together, and exchange ideas around the campfire, you get to know what the other fellow is like,” he said.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower invoked the “bonds of common purpose and common ideals.” And President George H.W. Bush spoke of “serving others.”
For a brief moment at this year’s jamboree in West Virgina, President Donald Trump indicated that he would follow that tradition — sort of.
“Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” he said.
Then, standing before all 40,000 of them, he bragged about the “record” crowd size, bashed President Barack Obama, criticized the “fake media” and trashed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In the lengthy 35-minute speech, the president threatened to fire his health and human services secretary if he couldn’t persuade members of Congress to vote for the Republican health-care bill.
At one point, he told a rambling story about a conversation he had at a New York cocktail party with a once-successful home builder who “lost his momentum.” The lesson, apparently: “You have to know whether or not you continue to have the momentum. And if you don’t have it, that’s okay.”
Throughout the address, Trump dropped in praise for “the moms and the dads and troop leaders” and thanked the Scouts for upholding “the sacred values of our nation.”
It was yet another example of Trump ignoring the custom that past presidents have dutifully observed in such public ceremonies. In his first full day in office, Trump bucked tradition at the CIA when he delivered a campaign-style speech in front of a memorial wall for fallen agency employees. In May, he used a commencement ceremony at the Coast Guard Academy to lament that he has been treated “more unfairly” than any other politician in history. And so it was at this year’s jamboree. Trump, who promised to be different from all the rest, was indeed just that, talking to the Scouts in a way no president ever has.
Here, by way of illustration, is an abbreviated history of American presidents and their encounters with the Boy Scouts jamboree.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1935 and 1937)
Roosevelt, once called the “greatest friend Scouting ever had in the White House,” helped secure support from federal and local officials to host the inaugural Scout Jamboree in Washington, D.C., in 1935. There were plans to line the scouts along Constitution Avenue and throw a party on the White House lawn. But the gathering was derailed when a polio outbreak near the nation’s capital put the Scouts at too great a risk.
The President, who said he had looked forward to the jamboree for more than a year, addressed the Boy Scouts by radio instead.
Roosevelt said that Boy Scouts, present and former, “constitute a very real part of our American citizenship” that relies on unselfishness and cooperative attitudes. “Scouting revolves around not the mere theory of service to others but the habit of service to others,” he said.
The young boys should be engaged in civic affairs in their home communities, even before they can legally vote, Roosevelt said, praising “the many contributions that individual Scouts and Scout organizations have made to the relief of suffering, the relief of the needy, to the maintenance of good order and good health, and to the furtherance of good citizenship and good government.”
The great outdoors, he added, are to be loved and understood, and he reminded the boys of their Scout Motto to always “be prepared.”
“When you go out into life, you have come to understand that the individual in your community who always says ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’ or ‘I don’t,’ the individual who by inaction or by opposition slows up honest, practical, far-seeing community effort, is the fellow who is holding back civilization and holding back the objectives of the Constitution of the United States,” Roosevelt said.
“We need more Scouts,” he added. “The more the better. For the record shows that taking it by and large, boys trained as Scouts make good citizens.”
Two years later, Roosevelt joined the Scouts in D.C., where they found his face on the first page of the Jamboree Journal with a greeting and plug for good citizenship, according to Scouting Magazine.
The former president toured the camp site, took 12 Eagle Scouts to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and visited with a group from New York that had built a large replica of the Roosevelt family home, reported the magazine.
(Read or listen to Roosevelt’s full address)
President Harry S. Truman (1950)
This jamboree was on July Fourth at Valley Forge, Pa., where General George Washington brought his army in the winter of 1777. Truman noted the soldiers’ struggles — the bitter cold, lack of food, poor shelter and tattered clothing — to make a greater point about perseverance.
“But the men of Washington’s army stuck it out,” Truman said. “They stuck it out because they had a fierce belief in the cause of freedom for which they were fighting. And because of that belief, they won.”
Truman’s speech morphed into a lesson on international diplomacy, world peace and freedom for all. He listed off the many states and foreign countries from which Scouts had come to attend the jamboree.
“When you work and live together, and exchange ideas around the campfire, you get to know what the other fellow is like,” Truman said. “That is the first step toward settling world problems in a spirit of give and take, instead of fighting about them.”
The “Scout movement,” the former president said, is “good training” for nation building work across the globe. Truman took shots at the dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, then shifted his criticism to “Communist-dominated countries” that are giving children “a completely distorted picture of the world.”
“The great tragedy of our times is that there are movements in the world that deny this fundamental ideal of human brotherhood. These movements have devoted themselves to preaching distrust between nations. They have made a religion of hate. They have tried to turn the peoples of the earth against one another — to create a gulf between different peoples that fellowship cannot bridge. As a part of this effort, they have tried to poison the minds of the young people.”
The United States, Truman said, “is striving to build a world in which men will live as good neighbors and work for the good of all.” He said he hoped all Boy Scouts in attendance would take home an understanding of “human brotherhood” and “work for freedom and peace with the same burning faith that inspired the men of George Washington’s army here at Valley Forge.”
(Read Truman’s full speech here)
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon (1953, 1957 and 1960)
Eisenhower, who visited the jamboree in 1950, was unable to physically attend three years later as president but recorded a video message for the Scouts.
Like Truman, he noted the importance of rubbing elbows with fellow Scouts of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. He predicted they would leave the gathering with “a new sense of the vastness and complexities of this nation and of the world.”
“I am confident that, in meeting and talking with your fellow Scouts, you will gain a renewed awareness of the need for cooperating — working together — in our country and in the world,” Eisenhower said. “Bonds of common purpose and common ideals can unite people, even when they come from the most distant and diverse places.”
Nixon spoke on Eisenhower’s behalf in 1957 and Eisenhower delivered another speech three years later, but the transcripts were not readily available.
(Read Eisenhower’s full 1953 address here)
President Lyndon B. Johnson (1964)