Boys Nation 75: A political training ground

Boys Nation 75: A political training ground

It has become one of the most notable photos in history, and likely the most notable photo associated with American Legion Boys Nation.

The image of a 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with then-President John Kennedy during the 1963 Boys Nation program’s visit to the Rose Garden has left an indelible mark on history.

It also helped shape Clinton’s political career, as he noted in a video message to Boys Nation in 2013.

“That (Boys Nation) week had a profound impact on me,” Clinton said in the address. “… I was also deeply inspired to pursue life in public service. Of course, I couldn’t know then what jobs I’d have or when I would be elected or what I would be elected to or whether I would even be elected. I did know that I wanted to spend my life being of service.”

And while Clinton has so far been the only Boys Nation alumnus to be elected President of the United States, he’s not the only one to make his mark in the political arena. A number of Boys Nation alumni have been elected to Congress, to state offices, even to local political posts.

“It was hard for me not to be drawn to public service after I felt an incredible call to patriotism when we sang patriotic songs during our time at Boys Nation,” former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (Boys Nation 1985) said in a 2010 interview with The American Legion.

Another 1960s-era delegate to Boys Nation has also made a name for himself in politics.

Alan Keyes has run for president three times, as well as U.S. Senate twice in Maryland and once in Illinois.

While unsuccessful in those campaigns, Keyes became the first person to be elected Boys Nation president and win The American Legion’s National Oratorical Contest. Keyes, from San Antonio, Texas won the oratorical competition in April 1967, then was elected Boys Nation president that July. 

Another Texan, Kevin Sladek of San Marcos, repeated the achievement when he was elected Boys Nation president in 1998 and won the Oratorical Contest in 1999.

While Keyes was successful in his bid for Boys Nation President, Clinton wasn’t — instead, Richard Stratton of Leland, Ill., was elected Boys Nation President in 1963.

Speaking to The American Legion in 2013, Stratton said the program “completely changed my life.”

“Boys Nation lifted me from a small rural town in Illinois to a national perspective at a time of great change and importance in the country,” said Stratton, who went on to a law career after earning a bachelor’s and law degree from Harvard, with a master’s from the London School of Economics and Political Science in between. “President Kennedy admonished us to ‘get involved,’ not simply be spectators on the sidelines, and we all went home and did that. Our Boys Nation class is in many ways a microcosm of the 60s boomer generation and all the social and political change we experienced in the United States.”

Boys Nation Presidents, 1960-69

1960: Lucien DiFazio, Wethersfield, Conn.

1961: Jefferson Jarvis, Fort Worth, Texas

1962: H. Pettus Randall, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

1963: Richard Stratton, Leland, Ill.

1964: Jeffrey Bauer, Boulder, Colo.

1965: Ron McCoy, Nogales, Ariz.

1966: Gray Miller, Houston, Texas

1967: Alan Keyes, San Antonio, Texas

1968: Peter O’Connell, Lakeside, Calif.

1969: Greg Gray, Gary, Ind.

Next: The country’s bicentennial prompts an unprecedented session.


Boys Nation

Boys Nation

At Boys State / Nation, participants learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens. The training is objective and centers on the structure of city, county and state governments.

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