Presidents and the Jamboree: Johnson 1964 and Trump 2017

Billings   All day as we had driven across South Dakota at 85 mph, only a wee 5 miles over the limit, keeping our speed aligned with the size of our wallet, cars and trucks passed us like we were standing still. Early in the trip as some of the vehicles whizzed by, we noticed they were filled with Boy Scout uniforms. Through Dakota, Wyoming, and then pulling into Montana, we saw at least a half-dozen vans, station wagons, and trailers making their way back home from the Boy Scouts National Jamboree at Bechtel Summit in West Virginia. They may have been speeding in order to put as many miles between themselves and Washington, DC, the nation’s capitol, as they possibly could, given the brouhaha stirred up by the current occupant.

Trump couldn’t seem to resist being Trump even to a bunch of Boy Scouts on their big adventure. It was all about him and his petty grievances and score settling. For him it was just Mar a Largo or Trump Tower with more trees. Any big crowd, especially one wearing some kind of uniforms, is just another Trump rally in his mind and troops to enlist in his personal wars.

Sure my son and I talked about it on our trip. We were both Eagle Scouts, as was my brother, his uncle, but mainly I kept remembering my own experience at a National Jamboree in 1964, when my brother and I were members of the ad hoc troop from New Orleans that had bused up to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for the event. We had been required to raise half of the fare, and had mowed yards and saved all summer to make the trip. We were so excited! It was our first time to “real” East Coast. We got to stay at a hotel in Roanoke, Virginia where we were unjustly accused of throwing water balloons out on the street and interviewed by the local police. Even better we got to visit New York City, take a tour, see the Statute of Liberty, stay in a seedy hotel, and even have the bellman call our room in the middle of the night, where four of us were bunked, to ask if we wanted hookers, just like in the movies.

President Lyndon Johnson had come to address the opening session on July 23, 1964. There was war in the east, but the Gulf of Tonkin was still a couple of weeks away, so to a bunch of adolescent and early teens, his arrival by helicopter, as all of watched while assembling was what excited us most. There was a fireworks display after his speech. Who could really hear what he had to say fully, and even what I did hear has faded from memory next to the rest of the pageantry. We knew he was saying we were special, and that was enough for us then.

Looking at his speech now, I’m sorry I couldn’t hear a bit better. He started in a straightforward manner:

In 50 years there will be 400 million Americans instead of 190 million Americans. Man will have reached into outer space and probed the inner secrets of human life. And some of you will take those journeys. New inventions will have changed the way in which you live, just as the automobile and the airplane and the television have brought changes to my life. Fast planes and satellites will make neighbors of distant lands.

A little off on the population, but certainly right on the rest. President Johnson took as his mission the need to inspire, saying…”This country of ours is a community built on an idea. Its history is the history of an idea. And its future will be bright only so long as you are faithful to that idea.” Then later expanding and adding,

The American idea is, first of all, the belief in freedom and the rights of man. Government was to be chosen and directed by the people. And every individual citizen was to have the right to speak his views, to worship as he wanted, and to be safe from the arbitrary acts of Government. Even if a single man stood alone against the entire Nation, that single man was to be protected in his beliefs and in his right to voice those beliefs. This dedication to freedom was founded on the great moral truth that all men were created equal. This was a recognition that all men were equal in the eyes of God. Being equal, the poorest and the most oppressed among us had the same right as all others to share in Government, to enjoy liberty, to pursue happiness as far as his abilities would take him. It will be up to you to carry this idea forward. For it is not yet a reality for all in this land. If Government was to be chosen by the people, it must exist to serve the needs of the people. This, too, is part of the American idea.

Looking back, I’m proud to have been there to hear those words, even if a boy’s excitement erased so many of them, mainly leaving me with the memory of the first time I had ever seen a President of my country. I’m saddened that the memory of more than 50,000 boys gathered in their big scouting moment this year will look back to read something so hollow, craven and small, rather than inspiring.

Is this how we build America?


Hello Again, Sioux Falls, South Dakota!

Citi headquarters in Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls There’s a group of motels that I’ve always classified in my own lexicon as “workers’ hotels.” Econolodge, Days’ Inn, Motel 6, and the like all qualify depending on the location and the city. They are near Interstate exits, fast food joints, and the like.

It has been a long day from Little Rock to Sioux Falls. More than 40 years ago when ACORN was first expanding out of Arkansas for the first time, but this was where we came. Perhaps even more surprising, we had come at the invitation of the US Senator from South Dakota then, Jim Abourezk, who had the wildly brilliant and unique insight that he couldn’t do all that was needed to be done for his constituency from Congress, they needed to be organized, and the young, fledgling ACORN was the group to do it. It was 1975, and if he was crazy enough to understand such a fundamental truth, we were crazy enough to do the work, even beginning in the dead of a January winter of that year. In those days, I was flying up for weeks at a time to join Dewey Armstrong and Tony Fazio in starting the organization along with Sue Bissenden, Jay Davis, and others. It would take 12 hours between Little Rock and Memphis, then over to Chicago, and if nothing was snowed in, on to the small airport in Sioux Falls.

This time it took 13 hours for Chaco and I to drive the route along the Arkansas River, then through the Ozarks and up the Missouri River. He looked at Yelp, and we ate at Gilberto’s the top ranked, 24-hour Mexican food stand on a main drag through town. Chaco commented that he was surprised at how diverse Sioux Falls was. So was I. I didn’t remember it quite this way, and there certainly weren’t many Hispanics living in Sioux Falls more than 40 years ago. Later we passed the airport, and it was still small in the same location.

I thought we were good, getting one of the last rooms in the Days’ Inn off of I-90, when we pulled in the back way past the rows of pickup trucks, the pockets of people sitting alongside their motorcycles visiting with a beer in hand, the couple of families grilling dinner and sitting in their folding camp chairs. Workers’ hotels have rules. Even on Saturday nights it gets quite before too long, but they largely have a live and let live ambiance. There are limits, but there are also great allowances. Nonetheless, when I saw breakfast was open at 4 AM, then I really knew we had found our travelers’ rest for sure. These were people on the move and working the clock.

Between us and the airport, only blocks away was a huge low-slung complex which had marked part of the change for Sioux Falls with the solid Citibank sign at the entrance. When Citi had announced it was bringing its call centers and financial service backup operations to Sioux Falls, you knew the days of the city being a meatpacking and ranch-and-farm center were numbered. Sure, enough we also saw Wells Fargo signs and many other financial services companies all flocking to take advantage of the state’s nonexistent state corporate income taxes. John Morrell is now owned by Smithfield, and its still here, but just not the big stick it had been.

And, Chaco was right. The city has changed. The population has more than doubled to close to 180,000 in town now compared to the 75,000 then. The bizarre city government then where there was a strong manager, weak mayor and department heads, has now been replaced with a strong mayor and staggered district system. We elected a member to the school board while here. We played our small part in an outpost that was often too hard for us to supply and support, but seems to have moved forward in important ways.

There are long distances in this part of the country, so Sioux Falls has become a regional hub, but for us, and many others, it’s still a solid way station on a long road.