US President Donald Trump waves after speaking to Boy Scouts during the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia, July 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
A barrage of political remarks by President Trump delivered Monday to the Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree in West Virginia has enraged many parents and former Scouts, thrusting the Scouts once again into the middle of the nation’s culture wars and providing yet another example of the unusual and polarizing nature of the Trump presidency.
The Scouts, plainly sensing a new threat that supporters feared could undermine a movement still reeling from extended controversies over the appropriate role for gay boys and leaders in Scouting, said in a statement that the group was “wholly nonpartisan and does not promote any one position, product, service, political candidate or philosophy.” The organization added that its traditional speaking invitation to a sitting president was “in no way an endorsement of any political party or specific policies.”
It was far from clear whether the statement would curb the tide of skepticism, outrage, and division that began even before Trump concluded his 38-minute address in Glen Jean, West Virginia. Although Scouting offices were besieged with phone calls and some alumni were warning that they would withhold support for the group, others celebrated Trump’s speech.
Glenn Elvig, an artist in Minnesota, said he was angered by the president’s speech and believed its contents deviated from the organization’s stated values.
“I appreciate that the Scouts offer the invitation to the president of the United States,” said Elvig, who fondly recalled receiving a letter from Richard Nixon congratulating him on achieving the Eagle rank decades ago. “What I was angry about was that this president took it as an opportunity to criticize others, demean others, and not really speak to the concerns of 12- to 17-year-old kids who are looking for direction in life.”
Elvig said he had been calling the Boy Scouts office for hours on Tuesday to express his dismay, but had been getting a busy signal.
“I would like a public denouncement of what happened yesterday and reaffirmation of the values I think I learned in Scouts,” Elvig said. “If they can’t do that, I will be returning my medal.”
Either way, the firestorm was an unwelcome and surprising development during a gathering that is among Scouting’s most important events, a quadrennial meeting that attracts tens of thousands of people and, very often, presidents, who in the past have spoken about service, values, or citizenship, not partisan politics.
Trump’s appearance before an enthusiastic crowd of neckerchief-clad, saluting Scouts at a 14,000-acre compound was a distinct break from 80 years of presidential speeches to the nation’s Scouts.
In the speech’s opening moments, it seemed that Trump, who was not a Boy Scout as a youth, would mostly avoid talking about the partisan clashes that have divided Washington.
“I said, who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts? Right?” Trump said shortly before he extolled the Scouts as “young people of character and integrity who will serve as leaders in our communities, and uphold the sacred values of our nation.”
But the speech by Trump, the 19th occupant of the White House to also serve as the honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America, was ultimately punctuated by a brand of political oratory that proved startling at a Boy Scout gathering.
He recounted how he won last year’s presidential election: “We won Florida. We won South Carolina. We won North Carolina. We won Pennsylvania.” He said Hillary Clinton “didn’t work hard” in Michigan, a state Trump won, and he resurfaced his grievances with “fake news” and “fake polls.” And when he landed on the second point of the Scout Law — loyalty — Trump interrupted himself to say, “We could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”
Presidents of both parties have been connected to the Boy Scouts: Their signatures have been affixed to Eagle Scout certificates, they have hosted boys and leaders in the Oval Office and many have appeared at jamborees.
In 2005, George W. Bush reminded the Scouts that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had appeared at a jamboree in 1937, and he spoke about themes that are familiar to Scouts, including service and character.
“When you follow your conscience, and the ideals you have sworn as a Scout, there is no limit to what you can achieve for our country,” Bush said.
Bill Clinton, who spoke in 1997, had made similar comments.
“We need you to remain focused on the strong values you learned in Scouting, to remember that character counts and service counts,” Clinton said. “We need you if we’re going to build our communities and bring our people together across all the lines that divide us.”
The organization has faced frustration and anger in recent decades for its policies about gay and transgender policy, and the issue even reached the US Supreme Court in 2000. Although the Scouts won that case, which involved the organization’s expulsion of an openly gay adult leader, the group has struggled to cultivate cultural relevance and stem a collapse in membership.
The group said this year that it had more than 2.3 million youth participants. About a decade earlier, it had close to 2.9 million participants.
In January, the Boy Scouts announced that troops would accept transgender members. It had earlier ended bans on gay members and leaders.
Zach Wahls, a cofounder of Scouts for Equality, which pressured the Boy Scouts to allow gay and transgender members, said Trump’s speech put the Scouts “in a very difficult position that they didn’t want to be in.”
“The Boy Scouts were not in the wrong here,” said Wahls, 26, who became an Eagle Scout while growing up in Iowa. “We should not be blaming the organization that always invites the president to speak. We should be talking about the president who took that opportunity and twisted it.”