State of Dysfunction

At Boys State, students learn firsthand how democracy really works. Lessons in intolerance and gay bashing are thrown in free.

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

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