State of Dysfunction
At Boys State, students learn firsthand how democracy really works. Lessons in intolerance and gay bashing are thrown in free.
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I KNOW FROM EXPERIENCE that when a teenager’s sheltered world collides with reality, reality wins in a walk. I was thinking of this basic truth this August as I talked with three 17-year-old honor students from Austin’s McCallum High School. The worlds of Dashiell Oatman-Stanford, Sam Bass, and John Minnich had crashed two months earlier, and they were still dealing with the trauma.
They were among the approximately nine hundred Texas high-school-seniors-to-be selected to attend the American Legion’s prestigious Boys State program, which has been held in Austin each June since 1940. The event brings together the brightest, most talented young men in the state and throws them into an unrelenting seven-day sausage grinder of politics and participatory democracy. It’s a brave attempt to teach how government really works: “Learn by doing” is the Boys State motto. The boys run the entire show—electing officers, creating party platforms, debating legislation, and generally behaving like teenagers everywhere—while the adult members of the Legion stand aside like props in a loony bin.
Those who make it through remember it as an arduous but instructive adventure. Some go on to become our state’s leaders: Several members of the current Legislature are Boys State alumni. But the McCallum boys had a different experience. As they describe it, they discovered “an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance” and decided to withdraw after only three days. For them, it was a trip to hell.
Selected last winter by their junior class counselor, the McCallum three were less than enthusiastic about the Boys State opportunity. Former McCallum students who had attended the program had told them that it reflects the conservative values of the American Legion; it’s militaristic, superpatriotic, and heavily tilted to God and country, sometimes at the cost of good government. But the boys believed that a stint at Boys State would offer them valuable insights into politics and might help them gain admission to a top college. Dashiell’s mother, Tamra Oatman, offered encouragement when he casually told her that he had been selected for Boys State. “I grew up in a small town,” said Tamra, a onetime sweetheart of Sweetwater High’s Future Farmers of America, “and it was a very big deal.”
The McCallum three struck me as the kinds of leaders this state needs but seldom gets. They are wholesome, intelligent, well mannered, and likable, the sons of educated, moderate-to-liberal middle-class parents who dote on them and encourage them to overachieve. Sam, who plays baseball at McCallum, was the most physically imposing at six feet four. Dashiell is a member of the band, and John is active in drama. All are members of the National Honor Society. “They are exceptionally bright,” I was told by Jim Furgeson, a popular history teacher at McCallum and the winner of H-E-B’s $25,000 award for lifetime achievement in education in 2004. “They think of the world in terms of ideas rather than facts.”
But as the boys reported to the Jester Center on the campus of the University of Texas on the first Saturday in June, they began to get a sinking feeling. Behind the registration desk sat (in the unforgettable phrase used by one of the boys) “an endless line of old veterans.” The men assigned the boys to one of two political parties, the Nationalist or the Federalist, and to one of 22 cities, divided among eight counties and four districts. The Legion places friends in separate parties and cities, so each boy was immediately on his own. “The boys in my city,” Sam complained, “were overwhelmingly rural and from private religious schools. There were a few minorities, but in no way did they represent the racial makeup of Texas.”
John and Dashiell were caught short that first night when city officers were elected; neither decided to throw his hat in the ring. Sam, however, was elected as a delegate to the state convention. “Chaplain and color guard were elected officials, the same as mayor and police chief,” John said incredulously. “In a campaign speech, the winning color guard candidate said, ‘Boys, there’s not much I can tell you. It’s Old Glory, and I love her and everything she stands for.’” Nightly Bible studies were not compulsory, but the boys knew that many of their peers would attend. Feeling out of place, Dashiell described the atmosphere as “oppressive and hypocritical,” and the boys worried that they had made a mistake.
Sunday started with a nondenominational memorial service. The main speaker talked about freedom of religion and how America was a nation of immigrants. “But then he started talking about those people who refuse to assimilate, refuse to learn the language, and then have the nerve to complain,” Sam told me. “He ended by saying that you have the right to free speech, but you also have the right to go back where you came from.”
As the boys prepared for the state party conventions that night, the McCallum three felt as if they were on the outside looking in. While about half of the boys were elected or appointed to offices, the rest were relegated to the peanut gallery, expected to sit, watch, and keep quiet. “If you tried to voice an opinion, you got shot down,” Dashiell told me. When Sam complained to a counselor that the minority voice was being suppressed during the debate over how strongly to word the party’s plank condemning gay marriage, he was told, “We can’t interfere with democracy.”
The boys were learning the eye-opening lesson that democracy in action is neither pretty nor elegant, but what troubled them more was a pattern of gay bashing that began to emerge. Asked at the convention to name an issue that directly affected his life, one boy ignored such problems as education and tax reform and replied, “Gay marriage.” His answer was greeted with thunderous applause, at which time he began to strut across the stage, yelling, “Who wants to find out your roommate is a fag?” One delegate asked the speaker, “How could you say something so cruel?” A boy standing next to Sam called out, “That guy is wearing blue shoes. I think he’s a fag.” By this time, other people in the audience were shouting things like “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” and “If gays want to marry, they ought to move to California!”
“Sam and Dashiell and I tried to protest what was happening,” John told me. “And people around us were saying, ‘You guys gay or what?’ A few of them even accused us of being intolerant to their views.” After that, several delegates who spoke began by assuring the crowd that they were straight. What especially disturbed the McCallum three was the complete absence of adult guidance. None of the counselors spoke out against bigotry or pointed out that democracies tolerate dissent and respect the rights of minorities. “So, of course, with nine hundred teenage boys,” Sam said dryly, “it disintegrated into chaos.”
That night there were numerous phone exchanges—between boys and parents, parents and parents, and parents and Robert Jackson, the chairman of Boys State. Tamra hoped that the boys would stick it out, but she advised Dashiell to talk with Jackson and the program director, Stan Dowell, before walking away. “Mr. Jackson told me that he thought the boys were just homesick,” Tamra said. “I didn’t think that was true. I reminded him that they were there to learn about government. Instead, what they encountered was an environment of intolerance. Mr. Jackson was silent for a moment, then he said, ‘They keep using that word, “intolerance.”’ I knew then we had problems.”
John did most of the talking when the boys confronted Jackson and Dowell. “No disrespect to the American Legion or the veterans,” he said, “but we have basic philosophical differences and feel that the best way to uphold our beliefs is to withdraw.” Jackson and Dowell told me that they tried to convince the boys that withdrawing would be a mistake, that they couldn’t defend their convictions by quitting. “I told them that this was their first taste of real life,” Jackson explained. “I told them that they would discover as they grew older that the vocal majority rules. That’s just the way it is.” Dowell reminded the boys of Martin Luther King Jr. and said, “If he’d picked up his marbles and gone home after his first setback, where would we be today?”
At that point, each person has a slightly different view of what happened next. Jackson remarked that what was happening at Boys State simply reflected the feelings and attitudes of Texas’s voters. Sam tried to rebut that claim, saying, “I don’t think your organization is representative of America.” Jackson brought up Iraq but bristled at a comment one of the boys made about the war. Jackson is a huge man with a full beard, and he must have looked like a ravenous grizzly as he towered over the boys. “He stood up, adjusted his belt, and said, ‘Well, dang, guys, I thought that’s why I fought in Vietnam,’” Sam explained. “He was extremely intimidating. By this point John was fighting back tears, trying to assure him we meant no disrespect.” What the boys didn’t know was that Jackson is a decorated Vietnam veteran: All but 28 of the 140 men in his combat engineer company were killed or wounded. When he talked about experiencing life, they needed to listen.
Jackson persuaded the boys to stay one more day to hear Monday night’s speech by state representative Patrick Rose, of Dripping Springs, a moderate Democrat who frequently talks about how his experience at Boys State changed his life. The boys agreed to stay, but if they hadn’t already made up their minds, what happened next sealed the deal. On Monday morning, a junior counselor awakened the boys by blowing a whistle and calling out, “Remember, guys, it’s pole in the hole, not pole on pole.” That night, after the lights went out, one of the boys’ roommates, whom he described as tall, blond, wealthy, athletic, and proudly homophobic, confessed, “I hate fags.” He was thinking about going to UT, he said, until he heard that Texas had a lot of gay students. And that wasn’t the only group he focused his anger on. In his pickup, he said, he kept a baseball bat filled with lead. “When people ask me what that bat’s for, I tell them it’s my can crusher,” he said. “For Afri-cans and Mexi-cans.” Early Tuesday morning, the three boys checked out and went home.
Rose declined to be interviewed for this column, but I did speak to state representative Dan Gattis, of Georgetown, a conservative Republican and Boys State alum. After I read a list of complaints from the McCallum three, Gattis said, “Sounds to me like they learned a lot. Maybe for the first time they got out of the small shell where they grew up and saw that there are people with other opinions.” He was right. They got a lesson in democracy: It’s only as good or bad as the principles of those who lead it. In his book Europe: A History, Norman Davis wrote, “In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, [democracy] will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany of 1933-34, it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany’s voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters.” One might conclude that democracy in the present climate of Boys State falls somewhere between fascism and cannibalism.
Near the end of our conversation, all three of the boys admitted that Boys State had been a learning experience. That’s when I told them about my own collision with reality. It happened in April 1954, when I was a nineteen-year-old soldier in basic training at Fort Bliss. That was the first time I heard the term “motherf—er.” It spewed regularly from the lips of a thuggish creep from Detroit, and it never failed to shock and revolt me. Though I had had two and a half years of college by then and was not entirely naive, I remember thinking that this senseless vulgarity had dragged the English language to its lowest possible depth. More than fifty years later, “mofo” is so common that Governor Rick Perry uses it as a throwaway. I wonder what it will take to shock the next generation.