Speeches & Floor Statements

Speech: Before Boy Scout supporters in Lebanon, Tenn.

February 24, 2014 - February 24, 2014

          Thank you very much. In a little book I did a few years ago called Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book, it has lots of rules in it and one of them is “If you want a standing ovation, seat a few friends in the front row.” So, thanks to the front row for that. And, thanks to Rob, my friend, for inviting me here and all of the others of you who did, and for the terrific job you do as aldermen and for your friendship. Jason Flannery, Peter Williston, Chris Crowell, Bobby Kane, Quin Cochran, thank you for your remarks, which will come a little later. Representative Mark Pody is here, and Mayor Hutto and Mayor Craighead and Mayor Jennings all are here. It’s exciting to be in Lebanon and to hear about all of the good things that are happening here.

            I had a great friend Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who once heard me make a speech and he came up afterwards and said “Lamar, may I make a suggestion?” And I said “Well, of course, Alex.” And he said “Well, if when you start, instead of making a speech you would say ‘Let me tell you a story,’ people might actually listen to what you have to say.” So let me tell you a few stories from scouting.

            I was about 13 years old. It was in a hot summer over in East Tennessee. But, when you’re in scouting and you go up in the Smokies, you learn that it drops about five degrees every thousand feet, so by the time you get to the top of Spence Field Mountain on the Appalachian Trail, it’s pretty nice. So, our explorer scout group had gone up there one August day, and we’d loaded up our packs with Bisquick and bacon and all the things that you cook for breakfast because that’s when all of the blueberries were ripe on Spence Field and we were going to make blueberry pancakes the next morning.

            We stayed in one of the trail shelters along the Appalachian Trail—we’d done that many times before—with our explorer scout leader, Dick Grave, who later was the head of Alcoa in Tennessee, and went to bed that night. At about 3 a.m., I noticed someone rustling around—these trail shelters had an open front—fire out front, and then three sides were closed. I was sleeping down on one end and I noticed some rustling around in the middle around where our packs were. So, I thought it was one of the boys getting up and I looked over there and there was a bear. Well, I woke everybody up, which didn’t take long, and we did the only thing you do in a circumstance like that which was, we climbed up on top of our trail shelter with our aluminum pans and our cooking utensils, and we beat the cooking utensils on the aluminum pans and shouted unprintable things at the bear, who took all of our packs, including what we had for breakfast, down to the spring in front of the Spence Field Shelter. I learned a lesson about not sleeping with your breakfast bacon on top of the Smoky Mountains when the bears are around.

            That’s not the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts. About the same time, about the same age, when the weather was just as hot, we went spelunking in Monroe County in East Tennessee. That means you go down in caves. And if you have been down in caves, you know that they’re all about the same temperature—I forget, but it’s about 57 degrees, something like that, but it was a hundred degrees outside. I decided, which thirteen-year-old boys will do sometimes, to try something I’d been told I couldn’t do, which was to have a chaw of tobacco. So, I took it down into the cave with me, got down in there, and with a couple of other boys, we tried it. Then, we came back up to the top in 103 degree weather, which made us as sick as I have been in my entire life. And so ever since that day, I’ve never even thought of having a chew of tobacco. I learned that lesson in Boy Scouting as well.

            I learned how to go on a snipe hunt in boy scouting. Essentially, you take a bag, and you’re told you sit out there all night with the bag open and you’ll catch a snipe. I learned a lesson there as well.

            I learned a lesson when my father, when I was twelve or thirteen, drove me the day after Christmas with two other explorer scouts not much older, maybe a year or two older, and just dumped us out on Newfound Gap at about 5,000 feet in the Smokies with three feet of snow on the ground and said he’d pick us up in Gatlinburg at the end of the day. The three of us walked up to the top of Mount LeConte, and then down, and we got to Gatlinburg. It wasn’t very easy, but we learned a lot about the importance of getting to your destination on that day.

            I was at Camp Pellissippi, which was our scout camp nearby Maryville and Knoxville and I learned a little bit about authority. We had a camp director named Kyle Middleton. He must have been 7’10” tall, at least he looked that tall to us, and we would all assemble in the amphitheater at the first day of Camp Pellissippi, and Mr. Middleton would stand up in front of us. Actually, we all called him “Kyle,” I don’t know why we would do that, he was so familiar, but I think it was because he told us to, and this is what he’d say. He said, “Camp is now open, and we have one thing we need to get straight. I think I’m in charge. Does anyone here think I’m not?” And, of course, none of us did, and we learned a little bit about the importance of authority. I joined the order of the arrow there. I learned about how to make a fire with flint and steel. One of my friends from Maryville, a couple of years older than me, would have been the first person ever to walk the entire Appalachian Trail through my area, from Maine to Georgia, but he made the mistake of getting all the way down to Virginia (he started in Maine), and he called his father in August and his father said he had to come home and go to college. So I learned the importance of education.

            And even in Cub Scouts, we learned lots of lessons. One of the most vivid was when we were playing baseball and knocked the ball through the upstairs window of the neighbor’s house. And, we all looked at each other wondering what to do until Bill Ernest, I’ll remember this until I die, said, “What we should do is go tell Mr. Smith (or whoever it was) what we did.” So, we all trooped up to his house and knocked on the door and said, “Mr. Smith, we just knocked a baseball through your upstairs window.”

            For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts of America have talked about leadership, have taught lessons of community service. There are 110 million scouts in the world in 185 countries, and 2 million Eagles. There are 9 Eagles in the United States Senate. There are a million adult volunteers in the Boy Scout movement. It is the largest and most prominent youth organization in the world. Its  job is helping to turn boys into men.

            Looking back, I realize how much I took for granted, all the time that our volunteer scout leaders gave to us. I know there are a lot of volunteers here in the room, but we just thought the world was made that way, that Mr. Studley—Joe Studley—and Mr. Miller, that they just had all this time to give to us. And because we grew up at the edge of the Smoky Mountains, close to the great American outdoors, just like you do in Middle Tennessee, we were out there all the time. Almost every weekend or every other weekend, we were hiking or camping or learning about the great outdoors. They taught us to love the Great American Outdoors, and as important, they taught us not to be afraid of the Great American Outdoors.

            Today we have fewer parents who take their kids into the Great American Outdoors and I don’t think it’s because the boys are afraid of the outdoors. I think it’s because a lot of the parents never had the chance to be in scouting and to know what to do in the outdoors. I still remember the Scout Law. I imagine most of you can say it:  “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, careful, thrifty, brave, plain, reverent,” I remember that. And I remember the motto, “Be Prepared.” That’s a good lesson in life whether you’re preparing for a piano concert or whether you’re running in a Republican primary. Over the years I’ve tried to apply those rules to whatever I was doing in life, and I’ve found it hard to improve on the Boy Scout lessons.

            I’ve put my love of the outdoors to work as a senator, trying to protect the parks, trying to keep the air clean, trying to keep enough open space so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the outdoors as I did. And I’ve tried my best to teach my boys and girls, or as Honey likes to say, “our boys and girls,” our family about the outdoors and to help teach those grandchildren as well.

            Some people say that it’s naïve in this tough world that we live in to take the simple Boy Scout lessons, like to walk up and say, “Mr. Smith, I just knocked a baseball through your window and I take responsibility for it.” That’s the right thing to do but some people say it’s naïve in the sophisticated world in which we live.

            Well, let me close with a story that suggests it’s not naïve at all. Shortly after I graduated from law school, I had the privilege of working in the White House for a man named Bryce Harwell, who had also worked for President Eisenhower. He was President Eisenhower’s favorite staff member. He was a diminutive little fellow who took shorthand, gave good advice, wrote good speeches, and everybody loved him. And he told me this story about President Eisenhower’s cabinet meeting. The Eisenhower cabinet was meeting one day in the cabinet room in the White House right off the Oval Office where the president works, and they had a particularly difficult decision to make.

            Now, Eisenhower as we know, was a sophisticated man. He was a five-star general. He was in charge of our troops during World War II, the Allied forces, in fact. He was president of a university, he was the head of NATO and now he was the president of the United States. He was a sophisticated fellow who knew how to operate in a tough world, who even knew how to win world wars. So he put an issue on the table, and asked the cabinet members what to do. The secretary of state said, “Oh, Mr. President, as a matter of foreign policy, we should do x.” The secretary of the treasury was next, and he said, “No, Mr. President, we couldn’t possibly do that; that would damage the economy.” The secretary of defense said “No, we couldn’t do either one of those two options, because it would hurt our military strength.” And so all the way they went around the table and down the line, every single member of the cabinet pointing out a problem with the option based on how it would affect their particular department.

            So, finally, President Eisenhower asked this question of his cabinet: “What would be the right thing to do?” The secretary of state said, “Oh, Mr. President, the right thing to do would be x,” and the secretary of the treasury said “Mr. President, that’s right, the right thing to do would be x.” And so said the secretary of defense and the secretary of commerce and on down the line. So the president, this sophisticated man who had won the world war asked that question, “What would be the right thing to do,” heard from his cabinet what it would be, turned to his press secretary and said, “Mr. Hagerty, then go out and tell the press that that’s what we’ll do.”

            The moral of the story, I think, is whether you’re a Cub Scout who’s just broken a window, or whether you’re a Boy Scout trying to learn about life, that the lessons you learn in scouting are lessons that are good for the rest of your life. And another lesson, and I think particularly for this group today, as we honor and salute the volunteers and the supporters and the scouts in Wilson County, and those in the Walton Trail district, is that it’s hard to think of anything more important that you could be doing with your time and with your money for your community and for our country than teaching these lessons of life that help these boys become men. Thank you very much.

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