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Congressional Eagles

Working Toward Boy Scout’s Top Rank Taught Members Life Lessons

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher knows exactly which lesson from his time in the Boy Scouts has helped most in Washington: handling poisonous snakes.

“That skill has really served me well here on Capitol Hill,” the California Republican joked.

In all seriousness, Rohrabacher and other Eagle Scouts in Congress say their boyhood experience was good preparation for a career in politics.

“Both take ambition, both take a quiet determination,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. “Both have their moments of loneliness because you need to lead and be apart from the crowd and achieve.”

Like winning a seat in Congress, earning the rank of Eagle Scout is a difficult task. A Boy Scout must earn at least 21 merit badges, serve at least six months in a troop leadership position and manage a community-oriented service project — all before age 18. About 5 percent of Scouts achieve the rank.

But Scouts are overrepresented in Congress. Although only 1 percent of U.S. men are Eagle Scouts, more than 6 percent of the 444 men in the 112th Congress earned the rank, including 12 Senators.

The Congressional Eagles speak fondly of long-ago camping trips, late-night meetings and hiking excursions. Most, if not all, can still recite the Scout Oath and Scout Law verbatim.

“I live my life, in essence, according to Scout Oath and law,” Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) said, before reciting the oath. “Making sure you stay grounded in it is enormously helpful. Make sure you keep that compass. That’s one of the things that will never leave me.”

But Members say they also learned valuable political skills on their trail to Eagle Scout.

“The very first elected office I ever held was assistant patrol leader,” Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) said.

“It gives you a well-rounded background in fundamental challenges that you encounter growing up, but that serve you well at the same time in whatever career you might pursue,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said.

The skills you learn as an Eagle Scout “are pretty fundamental to doing the work that we do as elected officials or as candidates,” Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) said. “They were very good early lessons on some really basic skills that come in handy today.”

Lesson No. 1: Be Prepared

Nowadays, Cochran comes to the Senate floor prepared for debate — but he wasn’t always that way. The first time he took an oral exam for a first-aid merit badge, the Senator realized he wasn’t prepared enough. He turned red with embarrassment because he couldn’t answer the questions.

“Gosh, the least I could have done was to prepare better and be sure I knew the material so I wouldn’t have to impose on the doctor’s time,” Cochran said. “The next time I passed the test and I got my merit badge.”

His colleagues agreed that preparation was essential to both Scouting and lawmaking.

“Be prepared is a pretty good model for a politician as well as a Boy Scout,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said.

“To do your best in Congress, you need to be prepared. To be successful, you need to fulfill that Scout slogan to do a good turn daily, to do good works and to help other people,” Thompson said.

Lesson No. 2: Love the Outdoors

Alexander literally used the skills he learned as an Eagle Scout to get elected.

He didn’t rely on the project planning or leadership skills he learned as a kid. Instead, wilderness survival helped him become governor of Tennessee.

In 1974, after he lost the gubernatorial race, his campaign advisers gave him some tough advice. “They said, ‘Well, if you run around the state like you did in 1974, you won’t win,'” Alexander said. “‘What do you really like?'”

He told them he loved to hike. So in January of that year, he set off to hike across his state, meeting locals along the way.

“I walked for a thousand miles — and I got elected governor,” he said.

Lesson No. 3: Get Comfortable Speaking Up

From a young age, Boy Scouts stand up in front of their troops and sometimes groups of their families to lead songs, perform skits and give speeches. That practice helped Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) get comfortable speaking in public, a skill he relies on heavily today.

“A fair number of folks in politics are extroverts; I’m an introvert,” he said. “The fact that you got accustomed to that standing up was useful.”

Lesson No. 4: Expand Your Interests

With 21 merit badges required to reach the rank of Eagle, Boy Scouts must learn how to perform all sorts of tasks including first aid, personal management and lifesaving.

In the same way, a Member of Congress must learn a great deal about the committees on which he sits — some of which are more fun or satisfying than others.

For Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the parallel is even more direct.

Merit badges are “in a lot of ways similar to the committees you serve on in Congress,” he said. “One of the merit badges I got really interested in was emergency preparedness, and I’ve been in the National Guard and dealt with that subject for the last 25 years.”

Lesson No. 5: Respect Your Troop

A Boy Scout troop is close-knit. Years of hiking together and sharing tents forms close friendships, teaching boys how to get along with one another.

Although they’re not wearing the same gear, the men and women of the Senate operate in similarly close quarters. Alexander drew a parallel between his old Boy Scout troop and his new one.

“The Senate is all about relationships,” Alexander said. “We begin the day in the gym, go to prayer breakfast and end the day at a fundraiser together. Being in a patrol is pretty good training for being in a body of men and women that operates by unanimous consent.”

Stivers agreed.

“A Boy Scout troop is made up of a bunch of individuals that have individual goals, aspirations, dreams. They want to go their own way, but they’re working together as a troop,” he said. “It’s just like that in Congress. We’re a member of a team whether we’re members of the Ohio delegation, Financial Services or of the Republican Conference. There’s a whole bunch of groups that work together inside Congress to try to make America better.”

Lesson No. 6: Persevere

It takes a great deal of time and effort to reach the rank of Eagle Scout, and it’s easy to consider giving up in favor of some of the less demanding childhood experiences. Nevertheless, reaching the Eagle Scout rank taught many Members that the best things in life are those worth waiting for.

His time in the Scouts encouraged Rohrabacher never to give up, even later in life.

“When I reached Eagle Scout, the top rank, it gave me a great sense of accomplishment and it taught me to persevere,” he said. “When I first ran for office, when I didn’t have a chance, people tried to talk me out of it. I didn’t let that happen. That perseverance kept me going long enough to win the election.”

Dold said he learned to persevere at late-night Congressional votes from his time in Scouts.

“There were a lot of times when friends or others would say let’s go out and go to the beach or go do something else,” he said. “It requires you to stay focused and work on things that weren’t as attractive to do then.”

Lesson No. 7: Leave Things Better

Boy Scouts take pains to make sure they leave their campsites “better than they found them.”

It’s a lesson that Carnahan said some Members should take care to remember for their country.

“It was a great life lesson in terms of being really good stewards of the land and of the environment,” he said. “You can apply the same to Congress, wanting to leave things better for future generations. That is clearly one of our big responsibilities.”

Lesson No. 8: Network

Though it may not have taught them a lesson for lawmaking, the Boy Scouts did introduce Brown and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to some important figures.

The former met the husband of his future campaign manager when he failed a merit badge exam. The latter, who served in a troop with a young Josh Reid, took tours at the Capitol from his troopmate’s dad, now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Merkley took a more practical networking tip from his lessons in the Scouts — it was there he learned how to work the phones when he was put in charge of inviting 30 families to a Court of Honor ceremony.

“I decided I was going to personally call every parent of the troop,” he said.

Lesson No. 9: Serve the Community

In the end, reaching the rank of Eagle Scout requires a great deal of time spent serving the community.

All the Members of Congress that Roll Call interviewed were quick to point out the similarities between their early public service and their current roles.

“The sense of so much of the work that we do is helping others and giving back to the community,” Carnahan said. Boy Scouting gave me “some of my earliest memories of doing that and doing it on my own as my own person.”

Lesson No. 10: Handling Poisonous Snakes

Rohrabacher wasn’t really kidding when he joked that befriending those slithering creatures helped him on Capitol Hill. One story he remembers fondly has an important lesson for lawmaking hidden within.

On a camping trip, a fellow Boy Scout started screaming that he had seen a snake in a woodpile. The scoutmaster came over, caught the snake and caged it, though the young Scout insisted that the one he had seen was bigger.

A few minutes later, the scoutmaster and the troop glanced back to see a huge snake slithering out of the woodpile. The Scout quickly put a stick on the snake’s tail, just far enough from his body that its lunges didn’t reach his legs.

“When you’re dealing with snakes, make sure you got the right one and make sure you go for the head,” Rohrabacher said. “There are a lot of political lessons to be learned from that as well. If you’re going to confront some piece of legislation, don’t go for the tail that might not be so bad. Go for the worst element in that legislation and focus on that. Don’t attack the stuff on the periphery.”

Their Toughest Merit Badges

These Members of Congress earned the rank of Eagle Scout, but not without a little trouble along the way.
• Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) failed his first-aid merit badge twice.
• Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) had trouble with basketry. “It’s actually really hard,” he said.
• Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) had trouble finishing his cooking merit badge, although he learned to squirrel away cans of extra food.
• Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) failed to earn the rifle and shotgun badge because he was too small to hold the guns.