Presidents and the Jamboree: Johnson 1964 and Trump 2017

Ideas and Issues

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?