A Brief History of American Presidents and the Boy Scouts

As with many presidents before him, Donald Trump was invited to speak to thousands of boys attending the recent Boy Scout Jamboree. Unlike many other presidents, however, including former president Barack Obama, President Trump took them up on the offer and on July 24 delivered remarks to 40,000 Boy Scouts in West Virginia.

A talk to young men who are on a journey to adulthood should be a chance to inspire, to talk about values such as freedom, responsibility, acceptance, diversity and many other worthy topics. Instead, after asking the crowd, “Who the hell wants to talk about politics?” President Trump did just that for the next half hour.

His partisan speech prompted lots of criticism, and even some flights of fancy on the part of Trump. He told a reporter for the Wall Street Journal that the Boy Scouts leadership called to tell him he gave “the greatest” speech, something the Boy Scouts quickly denied in a statement.

Trump’s political posturing at the Jamboree was inappropriate, and prompts questions about whether the Scouts’ longstanding tradition of inviting presidents to speak will disappear in a hyper-partisan age such as ours.

Founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts have always sought to instill in its scouts core values such as trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, courteousness, and bravery. The Scouts have also granted the title of Honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America to every U.S. president since William Howard Taft.

You might be surprised, but it turns out that only five U.S. Presidents were Boy Scouts themselves: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Some media outlets have been reporting that Barack Obama was also a Boy Scout, but that’s incorrect. He was part of the Gerakan Parmuka, an Indonesian Scout Association that’s also part of the international scouting movement, but not a branch of the Boy Scouts of America.

Plenty of other presidents have spoken at Boy Scout Jamborees, however, starting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gave a well-received speech on good citizenship back in 1937. President Harry Truman talked about the importance of fellowship, adding a typical Missouri bit of wisdom: “When you work and live together and exchange ideas around the campfire, you get to know what the other fellow is like.”

When he spoke before the Scouts, President Dwight D. Eisenhower talked about the bonds of common purpose and common ideals; and President George H.W. Bush talked about the importance of serving others (as well as a lot about fishing) when he addressed the Boy Scout Jamboree in August 1989.

Not every president has attended a Boy Scout Jamboree, however: four of the thirteen men who have been president since the Jamboree began have opted not to attend, including Barack Obama. In fact, a president has appeared at only nine of the twenty jamborees that have been held.

But this is the first time the Boy Scouts have had to apologize to their members for hosting a sitting president at the Jamboree. “I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent,” Michael Surbaugh, the chief Scout executive for the group, wrote in a statement. In another statement, the organization reaffirmed its mission: “As one of America’s largest youth-serving organizations, 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.”

Let’s hope that the next U.S. president invited to speak at the Jamboree has a better grasp of what the organization stands for than Trump does. Political power ebbs and flows, but the values the Boy Scouts teach are timeless, and should be free from the taint of partisanship.

Image: The two millionth Eagle Scout Anthony Thomas addresses an audience of more than 45,000 during the Boy Scouts of America 2010 National Scout Jamboree on Fort AP Hill, Va., July 28, 2010. By Cherie Cullen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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