In the Boston suburb of Medford, a Jewish kid from a Russian immigrant family joined an otherwise all-Baptist Boy Scout troop. His middle-class family couldn’t afford to send him to summer camp with Troop 11 so Michael Bloomberg learned to hustle. For five years running, this Jewish scout won a camp scholarship by selling more Christmas wreaths than every Baptist in his troop.
That gumption and background are exactly why other candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination should beware.
Although Bloomberg has come under fire for his past comments on policies like stop and frisk this week, his experience as an Eagle Scout could help set him apart. In scouting, Bloomberg learned to set goals and achieve them. He learned entrepreneurship in the broadest sense. While leaders and fellow Scouts were always ready to help, he had to take the initiative and do the work. He earned more than 20 merit badges, progressed through six ranks, and ultimately earned the pinnacle rank of Eagle Scout.
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“Being an Eagle Scout means you took control of your own life,” a much older Bloomberg told me while I was writing my first book about Eagle Scouts. “You set an objective, a reasonably complex one for a young man, and you pursued it through difficult times.” He drew upon those lessons when 2019 Democratic primary polls showed him in low single-digits.
Importantly, Bloomberg didn’t leave scouting when he left Troop 11. In his whimsical way, the late novelist Tom Wolfe explained the program’s lifelong influence when he said of my book “Legacy of Honor,” “This book solves the mystery of why Michael Bloomberg and Ross Perot are long-lost blood brothers. They are -- not were, but are -- Eagle Scouts.”
I asked the former New York City mayor to recite the Scout Law, fifty-plus years after hanging up his uniform. He did so without hesitation: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
“There’s a lack of ambiguity,” he said of those lifelong standards; people know where he stands. “Now, nobody suggests that as an adult everyone will be perfect and follow every point of the Scout Law, but hopefully you as an Eagle Scout do more than you would otherwise.” Everyone falls short of perfection, but I've found Eagle Scouts aim to do their best.
Bloomberg never forgot that creed, nor did he stop setting and achieving goals. He credits scouting with teaching him to overcome simple obstacles, which prepared him for larger challenges to come.
“When you’re an adult,” he explained, “there are more serious goals than earning Eagle Scout: Fighting for your country or raising your own family or helping people who just aren’t as lucky as the rest of us. The decisions when you’re an adult get to be much more complex. There’s oftentimes no right or wrong answer and ascertaining the facts is a real problem in decision making (a motto at Bloomberg Philanthropies is 'In God we trust; everyone else bring data'). When you are at the age of Boy Scouts, the facts are clear. Later on, they’re not.” Making those easy decisions prepared him for much more complex challenges.
Scouting’s foundation of character, achievement, and leadership (where else do fourteen-year-olds lead troops of other teens and pre-teens) enabled Bloomberg’s rise from his roots. At each stage of life, his goals and challenges became larger but he knew how to tackle them. As an entrepreneur, he started a new company and led Bloomberg LP’s growth into a global enterprise that generated a personal fortune he has invested in philanthropy, policy, and most recently, his own presidential campaign. Appropriately, those salesmanship skills he learned in scouting helped him land Bloomberg’s first client.
Wolfe’s quip raises another point that could make Bloomberg formidable and effective. Eagle Scouts are quite different -- conservative and liberal, wealthy and not, black and white, Jewish and Baptist -- yet inside the big tent of scouting, they learn first to understand different perspectives then work together toward common aims. “Brother or sister scouts” is a term used sincerely in troops around the world.
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Bloomberg’s two million fellow Eagle Scouts include Sam Walton, Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee, director Steven Spielberg, former Cabinet secretaries Robert Gates, Hank Paulson, Rex Tillerson, and Gary Locke, President Gerald Ford, Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine and Jim Lovell of “Apollo 13.” Despite their myriad differences, Eagle Scouts hold common values; they develop a worldview informed by duty, cooperation, and service to others. They learn to finish what they start.
When Bloomberg announced his candidacy for the presidency, early polls showed him trailing the field. He never doubted himself and doubled down with a massive media investment. His personal bank account is fueling a rapid climb. The most recent Quinnipiac University national poll places him in third place with 15 percent support.
Early moderate favorite former Vice President Joe Biden has stumbled. As ascendant former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., celebrate their Iowa and New Hampshire results, they best look out for the Eagle Scout. One leader for the Democratic nomination labels himself a socialist and the other’s credential is serving as mayor of a 100,000-person city; several Manhattan blocks might hold that many New Yorkers. Many Democratic voters doubt Sanders or Buttigieg can win in November. Those voters might look to Bloomberg who offers something uniquely American as an Eagle Scout.
Of course, nobody can predict the path this Nantucket sleigh ride of a Democratic primary season will take, but Bloomberg’s background in scouting -- as well as business, philanthropy, and government -- would lead me to put good money on the scrappy scout from Medford who can sell politics, as well as Christmas wreaths.
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When it is said to them: "Make not mischief on the earth," they say: "Why, we only want to make peace!"Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realize (it) not.When it is said to them: "Believe as the others believe:" They say: "Shall we believe as the fools believe?" Nay, of a surety they are the fools, but they do not know. (The Cow 11-13 )