A Handshake With the President Still Inspires

Cynicism runs rampant in D.C. these days, but Boy Scouts visiting White House are immune

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At a time when access to the president (or the Lincoln bedroom) has apparently come at a hefty premium, there's one group of White House visitors who are not major campaign contributors yet have had a standing invitation to the Oval Office for nearly a century: the Boy Scouts.

In fact, the Boy Scouts of America are required by law to present an annual report, in person, to Congress and the president.

A group of seven scouts representing several regions of the US fulfilled their statutory duty this week, presenting President Clinton with the report and a small statue of a silver eagle.

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Their genuine awe at the office and its trappings stands in contrast to the cynicism of many Washington politicians and hangers-on. Those who live in the nation's capital too often focus only on an individual and that person's success or failure. Perhaps it takes the eyes of a scout to see the power and history of the office that individual inhabits.

"It was overwhelming. When the door opened, it was just amazing ... he was standing there. He looked you right in the eye and said hello," says a still-incredulous Chris Rogers of Janesville, Wis.

"You see him so much on TV ... he didn't look real! He kind of looked fake!" agrees another scout.

William Howard Taft was the first president to receive the scouts at the White House. For 85 years, the largely ceremonial handing over of the report has continued uninterrupted. The group's original congressional charter establishes the practice.

This year's report contains an update on Scout projects, including anticrime programs in American inner cities, as well as other highlights of 1996, according to Greg Shields, the Scouts' national spokesman.

For the Scouts, the meeting is excellent marketing. "A lot of parents believe that the values Boy Scouts still stand for are significant," Mr. Shields says, noting an almost 7 percent growth last year of Tiger Cubs, the youngest Boy Scout branch.

Over the years, the annual appointment with the president has evolved into a Washington tour of immense proportions for a handful of scouts. The scouts who participate are chosen for their exemplary service over the past year.

In the space of five days, the group meets with a long list of high-ranking officials, including members of Congress and Attorney General Janet Reno. The itinerary includes touring 33 venues, such as the Su-preme Court and Arlington National Cemetery.

While at the White House, each scout got a box of M&Ms with the president's signature and seal. "I ate them, I was so hungry by the end of the day!" confesses Fang Trevong of Rochester, N.Y. Fang called his parents, recounting how Clinton had somehow known his birthday is coming up this weekend.

"The president was pretty cool!" agrees star-struck Cub Scout Jeremy Kane from Golden Valley, Minn. Jeremy recently earned the scout's heroism award for saving his toddler brother from drowning.

The group's chaperone, Horace Wilkins of San Antonio, Texas, believes the meeting will prove to be a major event in the scouts' lives. "Looking at these kids, you know the American dream is alive and well. It doesn't matter who is sitting in that office, there is respect for the office. It changes them."

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