John Rowell can fondly recall memories from his days as a Boy Scout in the early 1960s, the adventures of wilderness camping and canoeing with his buddies in Troop 211 in Fargo. He can also vividly recall lessons in “citizenship in the nation, citizenship in the community and citizenship in the home” that were drilled into him, culminating in Rowell becoming an Eagle Scout in 1966.
Rowell has proudly kept his Eagle Scout badge in his home office in Moorhead, at least until last week, when he drove to the Fargo Boy Scout office and gave it back.
It was during President Donald Trump’s outrageous, self-serving and mean-spirited (my words, not Rowell’s) speech to the Boy Scout Jamboree that the scouting laws of “courteous,” “kind” and “reverent” came back to Rowell. Egged on by Trump, many of the Scouts cheered or booed on cue, and to Rowell’s dismay, scouting leaders did little if anything to stop it.
Rowell, a retired mail carrier who served in the Army reserves, didn’t want to discuss the nature of Trump’s speech because nobody had any control over it, likely not even Trump’s speechwriters. But Scout leaders throughout the crowd could have controlled their Scouts simply by standing up, facing them and giving them the Boy Scout sign, which Rowell said is the recognized signal for quiet.
“It didn’t matter what the speaker said, I identified it as an enormous failure of leadership by the adults who were there,” Rowell said.
The behavior of many of the Scouts was a direct dismissal of the opinions and cultural values of other students around them, Rowell believes. “A Scout is supposed to be a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout.
“To cheer in a disrespectful way, and to boo a previous president or the losing candidate is against the very values of being a Boy Scout. You are to show respect to people at all times.”
In his speech, Trump said Hillary Clinton “didn’t work hard” in her campaign. Kids booed when her name was spoken. Trump bragged about his electoral success and criticized President Barack Obama for sending a video (a gracious tribute to scouting, in comparison) to the Scouts last year instead of speaking in person. He thanked the crowd — made up largely of children — for voting for him. Then, he again attacked the media with lies.
“By the way, what do you think the chances are that this incredible, massive crowd, record-setting, is going to be shown on television tonight? One percent or zero?” he said to applause. “The fake media will say: President Trump — and you know what this is — President Trump spoke before a small crowd of Boy Scouts today. That’s some — that is some crowd. Fake media. Fake news.”
Of course, CNN aired the speech live and showed the large crowd.
Previous presidents who spoke to the Boy Scouts all focused on the values emphasized by their code, and they all avoided trying to score political points.
The Scouts issued a news release after Trump’s speech, explaining the group was nonpartisan and “does not promote any one political position, candidate or philosophy.”
Rowell was disappointed by the leadership’s response, calling it “milquetoast.”
Glenn Elvig is another Minnesota Eagle Scout who was appalled by the speech and Scout leadership reaction (even after a second, marginally stronger apology by the Scouts on Thursday), and is considering sending his medal back. He’s writing to the national office and will wait for a satisfactory reply before deciding whether to keep his badge or return it.
Watching Trump’s speech, “I was getting physically ill,” said Elvig, who has voted for candidates in both parties and considers himself fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Elvig was the Afton troop’s first Eagle Scout in 1970, and one of his projects was to erect the flagpole in downtown Afton.
“The whole idea of scouting is service to others, not service to self,” said Elvig. “But it was all about him.”
Scout leadership had reminded the kids to behave and avoid chanting on their website before the event but did little to stop it once the speech started.
“A Scout is to be obedient, and this was direct disobedience to that instruction,” Rowell said. “This was an opportunity for people to shine, to show respect and dignity and attention to their own principles.”
“People don’t understand how responsive Scouts are to the sign,” he added. “They know that when the hand goes up, the mouth goes shut.”
Because of his disappointment, Rowell felt he had to follow the values he learned in scouting and give back the Eagle Scout badge. He said a woman at the front desk accepted it.
“At first she looked surprised, then sad,” Rowell said. “I was sad too. As hard as it was to do, I thought I had to bring attention to the leaders of how this had gone so wrong. I want them to take steps to ensure this won’t happen again.”
The White House has refused to apologize, saying the kids seemed to like the speech. After all, it’s not about values anymore, it’s about ratings.