[originally published as a New York Times Op-Ed]
In the middle of his wandering speech before the Boy Scouts of America on Monday night, President Trump asked with a smirk if Barack Obama had ever visited them at a jamboree.
“The answer is no,” he assured the crowd. President Obama, who was a boy scout in his youth, unlike Mr. Trump, missed the two national jamborees that took place when he was president (though he did address them by video). But he invited a group of scouts to come to the Oval Office each year, and he gave them a very different kind of message from the one they heard from Mr. Trump on Monday.
I know this because I was one of those scouts. As the elected youth leader of the Boy Scouts’ honor society, I found myself with half a dozen other scouts on the annual visit to the White House. I remember the way Mr. Obama listened carefully and asked thoughtful questions as we talked about the service projects the organization had undertaken that year.
These Oval Office meetings are one of the many presidential “check box” responsibilities: 10 minutes that have to be scheduled somehow every year. Because the Boy Scouts of America received a congressional charter in 1916 with annual reporting requirements, the Report to the Nation, as the trip is called, falls in a gray area between unavoidable photo-op and congressional mandate.
Even if it was mostly an obligatory formality, President Obama never let that on to the boys in the meeting. Despite overwhelming schedules, American presidents understood it was worth the time to hear some kids talk about Scouting’s opportunities for service and leadership. The stories from these meetings become legends among the generations of youth leaders, many of whom come back to serve as adult mentors in the program. President Bill Clinton, one of them told me, called each of the kids in the room by name after hearing their names just once.
Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, happened to be an adult leader during my trip to the Oval Office. At the time, he was the president of the Boy Scouts’ executive board (a different position from the “honorary president” role now filled by Mr. Trump). The post was subsequently held by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who later endorsed the nomination of Mr. Tillerson for secretary of state in part because of their “mutual involvement in and leadership of the Boy Scouts of America,” according to a statement he released in December.
That involvement came at a time when the Boy Scouts of America was facing mounting pressure about its policies on gay members. The membership policy became national news in 2012, while Mr. Tillerson was the executive board’s president, and was changed in 2013. Under Mr. Gates’s guidance, the organization also changed its policy on gay scout leaders. Both men were closely involved in the process of moving the organization through these changes, and they saw firsthand the risks of getting mixed up in politics.
The protracted battle over Scouting’s gay membership policies owed much to the fact that Scouting in America truly cuts across all walks of life. There are troops in nearly every community across the country, and about 50 million living alumni. The Boy Scouts may skew toward its stereotype as white, middle-class and conservative, but it is a surprisingly diverse organization — of which its leadership is rightly proud — and Hispanics are among its fastest-growing demographic groups.
Presidents invite scouts to the Oval Office and come to jamborees because the Boy Scouts has, symbolically, come to represent America’s children. Scouting is intended to remain apolitical, based on universal American values, so that it can be a program that adapts to any local environment. That was what made the gay membership policies such a hard balance to strike for the movement.
And that was what was so jarring and disquieting about Mr. Trump’s speech. Even after prefacing his remarks by saying he “shouldn’t talk about politics,” he couldn’t stop himself from devoting the bulk of his speech to an unfortunately predictable combination of grandstanding, politicking and lewd inappropriateness. Seemingly egged on by a mass of adolescent boys, he became even more extreme than he is in his usual campaign speeches.
Reading through dozens of Facebook posts from my Scouting friends after the speech, I discovered an outpouring from across the political spectrum of disappointment and sadness: a nostalgic feeling of innocence lost. For myself, and I’d imagine for millions of other scouts who consider Scouting to be the greatest influence of their childhood, the president was breaking a sacred barrier we never thought he would cross.
There was a small detail of the president’s speech that would be easy to miss amid all the bluster. At one point, Mr. Trump called up several of his cabinet members who were boy scouts to stand behind him. Notably absent, even though Boy Scouts of America Facebook posts confirmed his attendance at the jamboree, was the member of his cabinet most intimately connected to Scouting: Mr. Tillerson.
I don’t know for certain whether anything can be read into Mr. Trump’s omission or Mr. Tillerson’s absence. But I do wonder if, in a time of encroaching breaches of cultural norms and social cohesion, it was a quiet statement consciously made by a man who truly understands what Scouting is all about.
Jonathan Hillis is an Eagle Scout and a co-founder of Scouts for Equality.