What the Boy Scouts of America did wrong in their apology for Trump’s speech

Logo: Boy Scouts of America

I feel for Michael Surbaugh, Chief Scout Executive for the Boy Scouts of America. He got the thankless job of apologizing for Donald Trump’s remarks to the scouts’ Jamboree. But his padded and swaddled apology misses the mark. Even if a problem is not your fault, you are responsible for apologizing as briefly and clearly as possible.

The Scouts strive to be a nonpolitical organization. They have a standing invitation for the President to speak; withdrawing that invitation ahead of time would have been a political act contrary to their principles. Perhaps the Scouts’ leadership told Trump not to be political in his speech, perhaps not. But his remarks about the politics of health care, media criticism, and everyone saying “Merry Christmas” — along his denigration of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — certainly violated the Scouts nonpolitical policies.

Trump is not going to apologize, so the Scouts must step up, but they’re hamstrung by their own nonpolitical policies. Failing to apologize implicitly condones Trump’s remarks, while a vigorous and heartfelt criticism would offend Trump voters. While the Scouts are responsible for what happened, they’re not at fault. That’s what makes the apology so difficult.

Padding and softening an apology makes it weaker, not better

Michael Surbaugh approached this problem by swaddling his apologetic words with lots of warm and friendly verbiage. It doesn’t work. Here’s my analysis of his statement, with commentary and translation.


Scouting Family,

In the last two weeks, we have celebrated the best of Scouting at our 20th National Jamboree with nearly 40,000 participants, volunteers, staff and visitors. The 2017 National Jamboree has showcased and furthered the Scouting mission by combining adventure and leadership development to give youth life-changing experiences. Scouts from Alaska met Scouts from Alabama; Scouts from New Mexico met those from New York, and American youth met youth from 59 other countries.

Over the course of ten days, Scouts have taken part in adventures, learned new skills, made new and lasting friendships and completed over 200 community service projects that offered 100,000 hours of service to the community by young men and women eager to do the right thing for the right reasons.

Commentary: Mixing the good news about the Jamboree with an apology is ineffective; it weakens both messages. I have no problem with these opening paragraphs, but they don’t belong in a statement about “Our Perspective on the Presidential Visit.” This long windup isn’t fooling anyone. Save this feel-good stuff for another post.

These character-building experiences have not diminished in recent days at the jamboree –  Scouts have continued to trade patches, climb rock walls, and share stories about the day’s adventures. But for our Scouting family at home not able to see these real moments of Scouting, we know the past few days have been overshadowed by the remarks offered by the President of the United States.

Commentary: Surbaugh delicately raises the issue.

Translation: We gave a Jamboree. The President spoke. What he said was a problem.

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

Commentary: Surbaugh must apologize for someone else’s misbehavior. The results are necessarily wimpy. “I want to extend my apologies to those who were offended” is the weakest form of apology, since it is vague about who was hurt and why. “That was never our intent” implies the Scouts are not at fault, this happened by accident. “We regret that politics were inserted” is passive; it shies away from the person who insert the politics, President Trump. In this paragraph, Surbaugh makes the weakest possible apology and takes no responsibility for what happened. This is no way to demonstrate leadership values to young people.

Translation: We always invite the President. He said some offensive, political things that violate our non-partisan policies. Naturally, this offended a lot of people who think this soft of thing doesn’t belong in scouting.

While we live in a challenging time in a country divided along political lines, the focus of Scouting remains the same today as every day.

Trustworthiness, loyalty, kindness and bravery are just a few of the admirable traits Scouts aspire to develop – in fact, they make up the Scout Oath and Scout Law.

As part of our program’s duty to country, we teach youth to become active citizens, to participate in their government, respect the variety of perspectives and to stand up for individual rights.

Few will argue the importance of teaching values and responsibility to our youth — not only right from wrong, but specific positive values such as fairness, courage, honor and respect for others.

For all of the adventure we provide youth such as hiking, camping and zip-lining, those activities actually serve as proven pathways and opportunities to develop leadership skills and become people of character.

In a time when differences seem to separate our country, we hope the true spirit of Scouting will empower our next generation of leaders to bring people together to do good in the world.

Commentary: Now we see the other half of the fluffy, white-bread bun surrounding this tiny little nugget of sort-of apology. “We’re all divided” and a bunch of platitudes about the Boy Scouts doesn’t make up for Trump’s speech — and in fact these elements read as an attempt to distract from what happened.

Translation: Politics is nasty, but the Scouts are not. We’re the good guys.

Yours in Scouting,


What should you do when you have to apologize for someone else?

I’m not surprised that the Boy Scouts blew it on this apology — apologizing for something that’s not your fault is difficult. If you’re in this position, you need to be clear on who did what and what you’d do to change things. Distracting people with platitudes doesn’t work. A shorter statement is better.

Here’s what I would have written if I were in a leadership position in the Boy Scouts.

President Trump’s remarks were inappropriate, and I apologize to the Scouts who had to hear them

President Trump accepted our standing invitation for Presidents to speak to the Boy Scouts Jamboree. We had requested that he keep his remarks non-partisan, in line with Boy Scout principles, but he decided to speak about politics anyway.

His remarks about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, greeting everyone with “Merry Christmas,” and on many other topics were inappropriate for the Jamboree. I’m sure they offended not just Scouts from families that didn’t vote for him, but all of us who believe politics should not be part of Scouting.

I apologize for the way that this interfered with the spirit of Jamboree. You should never have had to listen to a partisan speech at our event, especially one that denigrated groups of people. Scouting continues to strive to be as inclusive as possible; this speech violated that principle.

We will continue to teach youth to become active citizens, to participate in their government, to respect the variety of perspectives and to stand up for individual rights. Our leaders will continue to speak with Scouts, including both those who attended the Jamboree and all the rest, about how to conduct themselves in a way that respects others. And we will update our policies to ensure that future Jamboree attendees, and those attending any other Scouting event, hear about leadership, not partisan politics.

This statement might offend a few people. But for the future of the Scouts as an organization, the apology needs to address what happened. Keep that in mind next time you have to apologize for something that was your responsibility, even if wasn’t your fault.

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  1. Thank you. Mr. Surbaugh’s weak apology last week bothered me the first I heard it. As a former scout, current Den Leader and father of twin boys that are currently Webelos in Cub Scouts, I try to demonstrate the Scouting leadership values not expressed in the speech or the subsequent statement.

    I was looking for a clear-eyed apology from the Scouts and called my Council’s office last week to express my desire for the National Council to say something on the matter. While better than no statement, I did not find Mr. Surbaugh’s apology effective.

    I hope that you have sent a link to this post to the Boy Scout’s headquarters. I know I will be doing so.

  2. Josh, two of my friends who went through Scouts in Upper Dublin to the level of Eagle and with one who has a son in the program, have suggested that the Scouts have always been apolitical and non-sectarian. They see Surbaugh’s words as more of a clarification than an apology. Thus, a re-statement of Scout values. Trump continues to make a fool of himself whenever he opens his mouth, can’t seem to keep staff around too long, and in seven months has achieved virtually nothing in progress and promises. The Scouts remain consistent and respected throughout their long history, where he will not.