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The Boy Scouts Versus Cambridge, Massachusetts

The foiled attempt by the Cambridge Boy Scouts to collect supplies for troops in Iraq stirred up a firestorm on both the left and the right. PJM's Richard Miniter thinks both sides got the facts wrong - and missed the point.

by
Richard Miniter

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December 5, 2007 - 1:00 am

A war between the Boy Scouts and the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts is loaded with good news that no one has noticed yet.

Unfortunately, every blogger and activist with time to spare this holiday season – on the left and on the right – has pushed the predictable ideological buttons – with the inconvenient facts (on both sides) pushed aside.

Here’s what happened: Several weeks before Cambridge’s Nov. 6 local elections, Jamisean Patterson, the head of Boy Scout Troop 45, asked Marsha Weinerman, the executive director of the city’s election commission, if the troop could put donation boxes in the city’s 33 polling places on election day.

The Scouts would be asking for donations – everything from sunblock and stick deodorant to granola bars and trail mix – for soldiers deployed overseas.

Apparently, Weinerman did not like the idea, but the city granted permission anyway. As this link shows, the Veteran’s Services department, at least, encouraged donations at polling places.

On election day, a well-known local gadfly complained about the Scouts’ “pro-war” message and the donation boxes were pulled. (No one asked if donations to Katrina victims are “pro-hurricane.”) The Scouts insist the boxes contain no pro-war message, only a plea to help soldiers in need.

At this point, bloggers and radio hosts scored predictable points (liberal city doesn’t really support the troops and so on) and city officials were hunting for camouflaging legalisms. Both were wrong.

The conservatives are right that Cambridge is an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic city, but the decision was not voted on by residents or even by the city council. It was one voter who complained, and one official (Weinerman) who decided to pull the donation boxes. It may well have been a set-up. Weinerman didn’t like the boxes when they were first proposed, and the complaining voter was well-known to city officials for her litany of past complaints. But the Right couldn’t resist the simpler, ideological storyline – and heaps of angry emails poured into the city’s online mailboxes.

Missing from the Right’s storyline are two key facts: the city council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the troops a week before the controversy, and Cambridge leads the nation in its financial support for reservists. While many cities pay the difference between Army reserve pay and (the usually higher) municipal salaries, Cambridge pays a full city salary to reservists serving in Iraq – on top of Army Reserve pay. It appears to be the first city in the country to be that generous.

I will return to the unspoken side of the Right’s storyline in a moment.

Now, let’s look at Weinerman’s evasions. She issued three press releases in 24 hours, subtly changing her story each time.

At different times, she contended that the Boy Scouts did not have the permission of the property holders (polling places are not all city-owned sites) and, without proof of their permission, she ordered the boxes removed. This argument collapses on itself. If she believed the Scouts needed permission from the property owners, then it would be up to the property owners to order the removal of their donation boxes. Certainly, she supplied no evidence that she was empowered to act on the property owner’s behalf.

And, of course, this argument sidesteps the fact that the Scouts actually had city approval; approval that Weinerman had no authority to overturn.

At other times, Weinerman contends that the scouts were engaging in political speech within 150 feet of the polling place – a violation of state law. This argument has two grave weaknesses: one, it isn’t true.

As a spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin makes clear, state law only bars relevant political speech within 150 feet of a voting booth. So, during a local election, one can’t stand within 150 feet of a polling place handing out fliers saying “Vote for Smith for Mayor,” but one can make unrelated free speech (“Save the Whales”).

The other flaw? The Boy Scouts were collecting toiletries and food for the troops, not commenting on the war one way or the other. After all, even the strongest anti-war activists say they support the troops.

What really should be investigated is whether Weinerman colluded with the complaining voter and whether she acted within the law.

Now, let’s look at some things that everyone missed.

The Boy Scouts were not putting together care packages for just anyone serving in Iraq, but Charlie Company of the 181st Infantry Regiment. Based in Worcester, Massachusetts, this is the local Army Reserve unit for the residents of Cambridge. All the Boy Scouts were doing is asking the people of Cambridge to send granola bars to their friends and neighbors. This is about as political as collecting toys for orphans.

Charlie Company is not new to Cambridge. The unit, one of the five oldest in U.S. military, traces its roots back to 1632. In 1775, Paul Revere led the regiment against British red coats on Lexington Green and in Concord – what the history books call “the shot heard ’round the world.”

So even a sensible anti-war activist shouldn’t mind giving a granola bar to a bunch of hometown heroes in a historic unit. After all, we all support the troops, right?

Finally, nearly everyone on both sides missed the biggest surprise of all: no one said the Boy Scouts were wasting their time. Even in a liberal haven like Cambridge, the people seem prepared to donate to the troops. How much, we will never know – thanks to the city election commission’s executive director.

All of this talk about Red and Blue States, misses something bigger, something so prosaic that it is invisible. Patriotism, in its many forms, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts just as it does in Cambridge, Maryland. Cambridge, Massachusetts sends soldiers to the fight, the city council gives them extra pay and the Boy Scouts count on a willing public for donations for those in harm’s way. It doesn’t get more patriotic than that.

While the left is too pessimistic about the war, the right is too pessimistic about the American public. As this Cambridge story shows, Harvard has its share of patriots.

The Scout leader, Patterson, didn’t bash his hometown in national news interviews. He just stated the obvious: Weinerman had made “a dumb decision.”

He’s right. Weinerman is village idiot who is bedeviled by foolish consistencies.

I suspect, this story will have a Frank Capra ending: she will be replaced before the 2008 election.

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