To the Editor:
On July 4, the President of the United States addressed the quadrennial Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America. Unfortunately, the speaker was Donald Trump.
The first annual meeting of the National Council of the Boy Scouts was held in the East Room of the White House in February of 1911 where President Taft addressed those in attendance. Taft, as President, was named as the honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America, a tradition that has been continued to this day. It is an honorific only, and implies no political connection or political affiliation.
In 1916, the Congress granted a charter to the Boy Scouts, making it one of the very few organizations to be so granted by that body. To be granted a congressional charter the organization must be “… patriotic, charitable, historical, or educational …” It must also be non-political. I believe that the only two other organizations with charters at that time were the American Red Cross and the American Legion.
The Boy Scouts of America are recognized as a 501 (c) (3) organization under the Internal Revenue Service code. This means that it is tax exempt. It also means that to maintain this status it must be apolitical. The Code specifically states that “… it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates…”
Many presidents have been invited to speak at the national jamboree. Indeed, it has become traditional to invite the sitting president to do so since the 1935 Jamboree that was cancelled because of the national polio epidemic. Harry Truman addressed the Scouts in 1950 and Eisenhower did so by video in 1953 and in person in 1960. Lyndon Johnson was the speaker in 1964. Nancy Reagan filled in for her husband in 1985 as President Reagan was recovering from surgery. In 1989 it was George H. W. Bush and in 1997 Bill Clinton. George Bush Jr. sent a video in 2001 and spoke in person in 2005. President Obama addressed the group by video in 2010.
In all of these instances the message has been about the fine work that scouting is doing and the uplifting principles of scouting. Never, until now, has a presidential speaker tried to turn an assemblage of Scouts into a self-congratulatory pep rally and a bid to influence an upcoming vote in the Senate.
The actions of Mr. Trump in this circumstance were inappropriate. He brought politics to an organization that is supposed to be non-political. I realize that there is a great spectrum of political and social beliefs within those members of the scouting movement, but the strength of the organization has always been that the Scout Oath and Law is a constant that all Scouts can agree upon, thereby promoting unity rather than divisiveness.
Scouting promotes character. President Calvin Coolidge, in his 1926 address to the BSA National Council meeting, said “Character is what a person is; it represents the aggregate of distinctive mental and moral qualities belonging to an individual … Good character means a mental and moral fiber of high order, one which may be woven into the fabric of the community and state, going to make a great nation — great in the broadest meaning of the word”
Perhaps our current president should take a lesson from the Boy Scouts in how to “Make America Great Again.”