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Letter #39 - The Silent Generation

(Remarks given on September 20, 2003 at the Disneyland Grand Hotel in Anaheim, California at a reunion of attendees at the Boy Scout Jamboree at Irvine Ranch, California, July 21-27, 1953. Vice President Nixon was a special guest and speaker.)

Ladies and gentlemen, scouts of all ages, I begin with yet another example of the depths to which the liberal media will sink.

On July 23, 1953, a local newspaper ran this unfair, biased headline: “Debbie Out Trades Nixon At Boy Scout Jamboree.”

The reporter writes that the Vice President of the United States emerged from a trading post tent with one snakeskin, while Debbie Reynolds was clutching 17 neckerchiefs, a steer’s skull, a stuffed skunk, nine rabbit’s feet, and a miniature sleigh from Alaska.

As usual, the headline didn’t tell the whole story.

Up to a point, the two celebrities were evenly matched. The Vice President had autographed business cards. Miss Reynolds had autographed photographs.

But she admitted to the reporter that she also offered the older scouts a kiss on the cheek.

Show of hands, please. Is there anyone here who traded or would have traded a stuffed skunk for a kiss from Debbie Reynolds?

How about a kiss from the Vice President?

See? Not fair!

When the Vice President addressed you during the “Salute to Hollywood” on Tuesday, July 21, he disclosed that he didn’t even get the snakeskin in exchange for one of his business cards. A scout from Texas gave it to him after talking him out of the historic and presumably expensive fountain pen he used to sign official documents in the United States Senate.

Don’t mess with Texas!

The Vice President also talked to you about his long and extraordinary day at the Jamboree. I’d like to recap his speech for you briefly, since because many of you were 14, you probably weren’t listening very closely.

Vice President Nixon was representing President Eisenhower, who had written to say that official business would keep him away.

Scouts being scouts, that Presidential decision did not go unchallenged. The Eisenhower Library has preserved a letter to the President from a Los Angeles businessman, John R. Glass. As a scout himself, Mr. Glass had heard President Roosevelt’s address at the Washington Monument during the first Boy Scout Jamboree in 1937.

“Please don’t let [the scouts] down,” Mr. Glass wrote the President. He said that while he knew the President was busy, flying from Washington to Los Angeles only took 11 hours.

Nevertheless, the Vice President made the trip instead. He had arrived from Washington early Tuesday morning and gotten to sleep at 2:30 with the scouts from his home town of Whittier.

I imagine that somewhere nearby was the campsite of Troop 99 from Yorba Linda, where Richard Nixon was born in 1913. Said by many to be the oldest continually registered troop west of the Mississippi, Troop 99 was chartered in 1916 and known as Troop 1 until the merger of the Orange County and North Orange County councils.

Troop 99 was with President Nixon 13 years ago along with a hundred other Boy and Girl Scouts during official opening ceremonies for the Nixon Library. The troop’s scouts and leaders have been actively involved in the Library ever since, most recently by serving refreshments to 1,800 Library visitors on Labor Day.

Back in 1953, Mr. Nixon told you how he arose after four hours’ sleep and helped prepare some of the half-million eggs it is estimated you consumed during those six days. He said the food was a lot better than he remembered in the Navy during World War II -- though he admitted that wasn’t much of a compliment.

A scout from Newport Beach via South Carolina, Bill Baldwin, has been generous with his reminiscences of the Jamboree. Bill says that while cheerfully scrambling eggs and flipping pancakes with his friends from Whittier, Mr. Nixon was wearing short pants.

That would’ve been a rare sight. President Nixon always felt most comfortable in a coat and tie.

About ten years ago he was invited to give the prestigious Lakeside Talk at the Bohemian Grove, an all-male summer encampment of political, business, and cultural leaders in northern California.

While the Grove is almost never as hot and dusty as the Irvine Ranch was that historic July, it does pride itself on its informality.

When we arrived, everyone in the receiving party, including Ed Meese, was wearing jeans. The former President was wearing a handmade suit from Freeman & Sons in Philadelphia.

Mr. Nixon told his friend the former Attorney General that he was just more comfortable in a coat and tie and would be wearing one during his Lakeside Talk.

Mr. Meese smiled politely. But the next morning, I was visited at President Nixon’s camp by the distinguished president of the Bohemian Club, who was wearing jeans and a concerned expression. He reminded me about the dress code and said that the President’s comfort notwithstanding, everyone else would be more comfortable if President Nixon would consider coming to give his talk at the lakeside without his coat and tie.

This warning made a great impression on me but not on the former President, who assured me again that he would be wearing a coat and tie.

Later that morning we spotted some official Bohemian Grove polo shirts in the camp store. In an act of pure desperation, we bought two and gave them to President Nixon, suggesting he give them to his sons-in-law, David and Ed.

When he emerged from his cabin to walk to the lakeside, he was wearing one of the polo shirts.

We were exceptionally proud of ourselves. Mr. Meese and the club president beamed with pleasure.

President Nixon gave a brilliant foreign policy address, without notes as usual, and received a standing ovation. One of the first to reach out his hand in congratulations was another former President, Ronald Reagan – who, of course, was wearing a coat and tie.

Former President Nixon was speaking to his Bohemian Grove audience at the end of the Cold War. In 1953, Vice President Nixon was speaking to you eight years after the end of World War II and during the height of the Cold War.

If you were a Scout at that Jamboree, you were too young to serve in Korea. Unless you chose the military as a career after high school, by the time of the Vietnam War many of you had started families and careers that kept you from military service.

Bill Baldwin calls yours the “silent generation.”

So far, for instance, none of your cohort has been elected President. I had thought the Democratic nominee in 1988, Michael Dukakis, would have qualified, but I checked his age. He would had been about 20 that summer – an assistant scoutmaster, perhaps.

And yet I have been wondering how silent you really were.

On the last night of the Jamboree, all 50,000 of you gathered in the main arena together with 25,000 spectators. Each scout held a candle and reaffirmed the Scout oath.

Honor. Duty. God and country. Help others. Care for ourselves.

You blew out the candles, and then you put them next to your hearts.

What a sight that must have been -- seeing a mighty cross-section of America’s young people, gathered on the brink of America’s mightiest age, as they renewed their sacred covenant.

In the days of the Hebrew Testament, Joshua – Moses’s general and the conqueror of the promised land – gathered all the tribes of Israel in a great covenant ceremony at Shechem and told them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel...I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant. Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.”

As you prepared to assume the stewardship of the nation that had been created for you, you too were asked to imagine and do great things.

In his taped message to the Jamboree, President Eisenhower noted the presence of scouts from 16 foreign countries. He said, “I am confident that, in meeting and talking with your fellow Scouts, you will gain a renewed awareness of the need for cooperating – working together – in our country and in the world.”

And the Vice President had this to say:

“You know, it is a wonderful thing about young people. They trust each other. They are willing to take the other fellow at face value. They have limitless energy and initiative, and they are not burdened down with the heavy mantle of prejudice and disillusionment that so many older people have acquired...That is why this great organization can be such a tremendous force in creating and maintaining international good will and world peace.”

Scouts of the 1953 Jamboree, those were your instructions.

If I may, you’re all close to 65 – close approaching, or close going away. Of course that number has a lot less significance today than it once did. Yesterday’s retirement age is now often the start date for a new career.

Still, what better time than now to take stock? How stand ye with the Covenant of Irvine?

Explicitly and implicitly, you were personally urged by the President and Vice President of the United States to create a more peaceful world and to remain forever young, at least at heart.

How’re you doing?

Imagine what we would learn if we could track the trajectories of all 50,000 of you beginning on July 23, 1953 as you spread out again across the American landscape.

Going forth from the Irvine dustbowl, you may have been silent, although I doubt it. I imagine those trains and cars were bursting with excitement about what you had seen and done during the Jamboree -- as well as eager anticipation of soft beds waiting at home.

Soon you were doctors. Police officers and firefighters. Judges. Politicians. Steelworkers. Aerospace workers. Farmers. Attorneys. Teachers. Salesmen. Prisoners of war in Vietnam. Software writers. Executives. Diplomats. Pastors. Electricians. Astronauts. Microbiologists. Architects. Engineers. Husbands. Fathers. Uncles. Grandfathers. Parishioners.

Think of all you have seen and lived already.

A 14-year-old Irvine Jamboree scout was 17 when Sputnik was launched and 23 when John Glenn took his three orbits aboard Friendship Seven.

He was also 23 when President Kennedy sent troops to Vietnam, 24 when the President was assassinated, 25 when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 26 when it passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and 28 when Jimi Hendrix released his first album.

He was 29 when Richard Nixon was elected President, 30 when the President called on the “silent majority” to support his efforts to achieve a just peace in Vietnam, and 33 when he stepped onto Chinese soil, reached out his hand to Premier Zhou Enlai, and pointed the way to the end of the Cold War.

Our scout was 34 when the prisoners of war came home from Hanoi, 35 when the President resigned, and 40 when the hostages were taken in Teheran and mortgage rates topped 20 percent.

I hope you had your loans by then!

The climax of our story comes when our scout is in his forties.

President Reagan bargained that the character, example, and sheer might of our country – its economic power, creativity, dynamism, and freedom – would overwhelm the stagnant economy and closed, frightened society of the Soviet Union.

Lucky for him, when he made that bargain, the silent generation was at the peak of its genius and productivity.

Ronald Reagan rattled the sabers you forged.

When Mikhail Gorbachev’s mind boggled at what the United States could do, it was you who were doing it.

The year our scout turned 50, the Berlin Wall crumbled into dust, and when he was 52, the hammer and sickle flag came down over the Kremlin after 74 years of darkness and tyranny.

That hot night back in July 1953, Vice President Nixon also told you this about yourselves:

“You have been taught ...what it is to be free, free to speak your own minds, to live your own lives and to worship God in your own way. You have not been instilled with the shameful arrogance of the dictatorial mind...That is why it is far more important than perhaps you realize that [scouting] has dedicated itself to the spiritual side of your growth as well as the physical, and that the establishment of peace is the concern of every one of you.”

And so it has been. The culmination of the greatest process of peacemaking in the history of civilization came during the maturity of the generation of the Irvine Covenant.

It was the work of every President since Truman, but it fell to you to finish the job.

Just as important, it fell to all those who became your partners in love and life, many of whom are with us tonight.

We’ve heard all about the “greatest generation” – those who defeated tyranny in World War II and bequeathed to you, in the words of Joshua, land on which you had not yet labored and towns that you had not built.

If you were the silent generation, it was the silence of an awesome, inward resolve -- a commitment to honor the covenant that you made together as young men.

Because the silent generation is the generation that won the Cold War. Thank you.