About every four years, the Boy Scouts of America convene for a jamboree. The tradition stretches back to 1937, tens of thousands of kids gathering for a week of good cheer. These days, picture Davy Crockett on a mountain bike. There are seminars on orienteering and skateboarding workshops. Kids can bird-watch or ride zip lines. Famous musicians are invited to perform concerts, the king of Sweden is a regular (he’s a Scout), and sometimes even the president of the United States shows up to give a speech.
Many presidents have been scouts of one type or another. Obama and Kennedy, Ford and Clinton. At a jamboree, the president usually says a few words about public service. In 1950, Truman encouraged the Scouts to fight for world peace. In 1964, LBJ talked about space travel. In 2005, George W. Bush gave an inspiring talk about Scouts “serving on the front line of America's armies of compassion.”
And sometimes the sitting president is Donald Trump. The Scouts are not politically affiliated. On Monday night, though, you would have been excused for thinking otherwise. After promising not to talk about politics, Trump delivered a speech rife with it, full of his usual boasting and self-pity. He insulted the media. He scolded his Cabinet. He told an anecdote about running into a wealthy real estate developer who regretted retiring to a life of titillation in the south of France — which is when Trump paused, while addressing children, to rib them for being, as Scouts, probably too upstanding to comprehend what he was talking about.
Trump being Trump, the man of no manners, still shocks us. But what appears to have unsettled people more was the Scouts’ response to the event. During Trump’s speech, the crowd cheered. They filled the air with chants of “USA! USA!” That led some in the liberal Twitter-verse to liken the jamboree to a Hitler youth rally. Of course, knee-jerk Nazi comparisons are standard Twitter oratory these days. But the Scouts’ reaction has a lot more to do with jamboree culture than indoctrinated Trumpism.
The Scouts are more culturally diverse, more liberal, than many assume. I attended the last jamboree, in 2013. I was there to research the “inclusion issue” — whether or not the BSA should accept LGBTQ members. As an Eagle Scout and a member of the Order of the Arrow, the BSA’s Honor Society, I spent three days interviewing more than two dozen kids and adults. Not a single one had a problem with the idea of gay Scouts or gay leaders. If anything, they worried the BSA wouldn’t evolve fast enough to prevent its corporate funding getting cut.
It can be hard to see from the outside that Scouting is meant to foster togetherness. Every troop is organized into patrols, each with its own emblem and flag. It’s ingrained in Scouts that nothing gets accomplished without teamwork — whether it’s for a merit badge in public health, or learning how to help a friend while camping. Scouts aren’t training to be patriots; they’re learning to become citizens.
One day at the jamboree, I saw a group of scouts out hiking, chanting “USA! USA!” the same way scouts cheered during Trump’s speech. Then a troop from Scotland came up a hill, with a Scottish flag. One of the boys was in a kilt. And almost instantly, the first Scouts switched their chant, to “Scotland rules! Scotland rules!”
I also heard spontaneous bursts of “Drink! Drink! Drink!”, as if a scoutmaster was pouring shots. In fact, the kids were simply reminding one another to hydrate in the heat. That’s Scouting in a nutshell: America’s most cheerful, earnest, sober-minded frat boys and girls.
I’m sure some of the Scouts who cheered our insulter in chief were sincere in their applause. But I’d bet more of them simply got carried away. Appealing to base instincts will elicit base reactions — especially from teenagers surrounded by their friends — and Scouting’s not immune to conformity. Take the uniform: Even as it helps erase financial differences between the haves and have-nots, it also leads to group-think. That doesn’t make the Scouts brown shirts, though.
If people want to condemn the BSA, condemn the leadership. The organization is extremely slow to evolve — whether on the inclusion issue, or requiring kids to be religious, or even how the BSA failed for years to report sexual predators. As an alumnus, I’m frequently ashamed. But when Scouting’s done right, it’s still a shelter. In my experience, Scouts are typically a step apart from the norm. Lonely kids. Smart kids. Dumb kids. Awkward kids. Scouting takes a child and connects him to something bigger than his problems, whether it’s the wilderness, or his community, or simply concern for someone else.
The very first jamboree, in 1935, was canceled because of a polio outbreak. FDR had been scheduled to attend. He delivered his speech instead via the radio. “Scouting is essentially and clearly a program for the development of that unselfish, cooperative attitude of mind,” Roosevelt said. It’s as close as anything I’ve read to grasping the movement’s true purpose. If only our current president had been a Scout.
Rosecrans Baldwin’s latest novel is “The Last Kid Left.”