CHARLESTON, W.Va. – No knot-tying demonstrations. No wood-carving advice. President Donald Trump went straight to starting a fire in a speech at a national Boy Scout gathering.
Parents, former Scouts and others were furious after Trump railed against his enemies, promoted his political agenda and underlined his insistence on loyalty before an audience of tens of thousands of school-age Scouts in West Virginia on Monday night.
“Is nothing safe?” Jon Wolfsthal, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter, saying Trump turned the event into a “Nazi Youth rally.”
Trump, the eighth president to address the Scouts’ National Jamboree, was cheered by the crowd, but his comments put an organization that has tried in recent years to avoid political conflict and become more inclusive in an awkward position.
Concern about Trump’s speech, in which he bragged of his electoral victory and joked about firing a cabinet member if Congress didn’t repeal “this horrible thing known as Obamacare,” reached to the Inland Northwest, where the local chapter of the Scouts posted on their website a statement from the Boy Scouts of America distancing themselves from the president’s political statements.
Spokane’s most famous former scoutmaster, reality TV champion Terry Fossum, addressed the International Jamboree earlier this month before Trump’s speech. Fossum said the focus should be on the Scouts in the crowd and ensuring the organization’s mission, not politics.
“The Boy Scouts of America stays out of politics. It’s not about that,” Fossum said. “We’re about helping young men become honorable men. That’s what we’re about.”
Fossum serves as vice president of programming for the Inland Northwest Council of the Boy Scouts of America. The council posted a statement from the national organization Tuesday saying the president’s invitation to the event is a tradition dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937.
“Since then, an invitation to speak has been extended to every U.S. President that has had a Scout Jamboree occur during his term,” the statement reads. “This 80-year-old custom of inviting Presidents to speak to Scouts is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies.”
Fossum, who earned national fame winning the Fox network’s survivalist game show “Kicking and Screaming” in April while wearing his uniform, said any criticism of the content of the speech shouldn’t be directed at the scouts.
“If they have a problem with the speech, target that towards the speech-giver, not the organization,” Fossum said.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who initially expressed hesitancy at Trump’s candidacy but has embraced the president for his backing of law enforcement while in office, said Tuesday he hadn’t seen the full Boy Scout speech but lamented any decision to “go political” in such a situation.
“You don’t go political, and if you’re going to do anything like that, it should be highly motivating,” Knezovich, who is a member of the local Boy Scout council board, said.
Knezovich said such speeches indicate a trend among lawmakers who aren’t taking the time and energy to inspire younger generations.
“We only get shots to talk to our youth off and on, and when you get that chance, you should be trying your best to inspire them to accomplish great things,” Knezovich said.
The Boy Scouts’ official Facebook page was barraged with comments condemning the speech. Several people posted links to the Scouts’ policy on participation in political events – which sharply limits what Scouts should do. Boy Scouts are typically 10 to 18 years old.
One woman wrote in disbelief that the Scouts started booing when Trump mentioned Obama.
Trump noted from the podium that Obama did not personally attend either of the two national Jamborees during his tenure. (Obama did address the 2010 gathering by video to mark the Scouts’ 100th anniversary. The Jamboree is typically held every four years.)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former president of the Boy Scouts, invited Trump to the gathering, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.
“When all is said and done, those Boy Scouts, what they will remember from the jamboree in West Virginia is that the president showed up,” Nauert said. “And that’s a pretty incredible thing.”
The pushback from Americans over the speech included members from both parties.
“I just don’t think it was appropriate,” said Rob Romalewski, a Republican and retired information-technology expert from suburban New Orleans who attained the rank of Eagle Scout as a teenager and has worked with the Boy Scouts all his adult life.
“It just doesn’t seem like he was talking to the boys,” Romalewski said. “He was more or less just using it as an excuse to babble on.”
Nancy Smith, a Democrat and elementary school teacher from Shelby Township, Michigan, said she won’t encourage any of her six grandchildren to enter Scouting. Smith is asking for an apology from the national group.
The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement after the speech that it does not promote any one political candidate or philosophy.
On Tuesday, after questions about the blowback, the organization said that it “reflects a number of cultures and beliefs.”
“We will continue to be respectful of the wide variety of viewpoints in this country.”
Trump kicked off his speech by saying, to cheers from the boys, “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts? Right?” Yet much of what he had to say next was steeped in politics.
Trump began to recite the Scout law, a 12-point oath that starts with a Scout being trustworthy and loyal.
“We could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that,” said the man who is alleged to have asked fired FBI Director James Comey for a pledge of loyalty.
In his speech, Trump also jokingly threatened to fire Health Secretary Tom Price – an Eagle Scout who joined him on stage – if lawmakers do not repeal and replace Obama’s health care law. He called Washington a “swamp,” a “cesspool” and a “sewer.” He repeatedly trashed the media, directing the crowd’s attention to the reporters in attendance.
In one aside, he told the boys they could begin saying “Merry Christmas” again under his watch. In another, he talked about a billionaire friend – real estate developer William Levitt – who sold his company, bought a yacht and led “a very interesting life.”
“I won’t go any more than that, because you’re Boy Scouts, so I’m not going to tell you what he did,” Trump teased. Then he said he had run into the man at a cocktail party. The moral of Trump’s tale was that Levitt “lost momentum,” something he said they should never do.
Levitt is often considered the father of postwar American suburbia, founding communities such as Levittown on New York’s Long Island, but was criticized for refusing to sell to blacks.
In the past few years, the Boy Scouts have retreated from the culture wars, dropping their ban on gay Scouts and Scout leaders, and have tried harder to recruit minorities.
Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and co-founder of Scouts for Equality, a nonprofit group that has pushed to end discrimination against gay and transgender people in Scouting, said Trump’s remarks “really harmed the Boy Scouts’ ability to do that work, which is all about serving America.”
“The wrong speech at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Wahls said.
Staff writer Kip Hill contributed to this report.
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