By Matt Reese
Are you ready for an FFA kerfuffle? It’s been going on all week.
I must confess I was totally in the dark about this until I read an odd comment on the post at ocj.com about President Donald Trump speaking this weekend at the National FFA Convention. Here is is:
To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Kari Hanson and I am the advisor of the FFA members you have referenced in your letter to me regarding their attendance at the September 6, 2018 President Trump rally for Matt Rosendale. I want you to know that I am deeply sorry and regretful for how my students have been portrayed and the impact that this has had on each of them, my chapter, my school, the Montana FFA Association, and National FFA Organization.
I know that some that read my response will find no value in any justification I attempt to provide. I understand that these are the times we live in and we’re all entitled to our own point of view and opinion. If you are willing to read further, I would like to explain the events that unfolded over the past few days. If you stop reading now, please know that I am sorry and wish no negative impact on the FFA at any level.
A few days prior to the rally, a staffer from US Senator Steve Daines office contacted me requesting four students plus myself to consider attending the rally as “VIP guests”. The staffer requested that the students be in official dress. I accepted and put out the offer to see if I had students who wanted to go.
The four spots filled quickly.
For perspective, Senator Daines has been an ardent supporter of FFA and ag education in Montana. He’s made frequent in-person appearances at various Montana FFA events and always makes time to see Montana FFA members during WLC and other times when members are in Washington DC. I respect Senator Daines and appreciate his support for youth in agriculture.
Accepting the invitation from Senator Daines’ office seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I understand how many people reading this letter would have handled this invitation differently and I am now more enlightened myself.
Upon arriving in Billings yesterday, things went very quickly. We accessed the arena and were directed to sit under the flag, we found seats in the upper part of that section and waited for the event to start.
Just before the event started staff associated with the rally invited us to sit at a lower location directly behind the podium (and now I know, directly in the main TV camera shot). Just prior to the President’s appearance , a different staffer came around with MAGA hats requesting that more people in the center
of the section take and wear them. It was made clear that if a rally-goer took a hat they should put it on; not store it under their seat just to take home as a souvenir. At that point the students passed the hats to others around them.
As you well know by the pictures online, two of my students did end up with MAGA hats. When the staffers saw that my students passed the hats, they went and got two more, brought them directly to my students and requested that they wear them. Against my better judgment, I allowed them to do so. It is my failure to recognize the magnitude of event we were at and to be proactive in realizing that our simple presence at the rally (hat or no hat) would make a divisive statement that could sully the good name of the FFA that is the problem. I am sorry for this.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that my students, sharply outfitted in FFA official dress, made for a perfect backdrop in the viewfinder of the national TV camera. I know that many who read this explanation will say that I was naïve to not know this to begin with. Having never attended or really watched more than clips of a rally on the news I will openly admit that I was. I never even considered the fact that National news would be there or that we might end up directly in camera shot.
I cannot take back what happened. I continue to respect Senator Daines and appreciate the offer that his staff extended to me and my students. In a bygone era, I believe that FFA members did grow and develop leadership skills associated with political functions. I realize now that in today’s environment, this is not the case and our being reseated in the camera shot and given hats to wear only exacerbated the issue.
FFA has been an important and integral part of my life for the past 27 years and I would never intentionally do something to give it a black eye. Even though it was unintended, we sent a message to those who recognize the jacket and you can rest assured that it will not happen again. I cannot take back the choices I made, but I can ask you to forgive this oversight and understand that the FFA is the non-political, leadership and agriculture based organization that you think it is.
So, apparently, the prominently televised FFA members in official dress wearing Donald Trump hats generated a significant amount of very negative feedback directed at the National FFA. To be fair, FFA is a officially a non-political organization and the Trump-hat-wearing FFA members in official dress were clearly outside of that description. I wonder, though, if an FFA student wearing official dress and an Obama hat at a political rally a couple of years earlier would have generated such a response. I suppose we’ll never know.
What I do know is that this year, when a sitting president actually ACCEPTED the annual invitation to come speak at the National FFA Convention, there were a surprisingly wide array of responses. There was, of course, marked euphoria from many students who get to hear from the king of country (Garth Brooks) and the President of the United States in the same week. But, along with the excitement and enthusiasm that one would expect from the FFA, there were also many nervous chuckles, forced smiles and worried glances about the President’s visit. I was a little sad to see that.
It is AMAZING that President Donald Trump is speaking at the National FFA Convention. It would have been equally amazing if President Barack Obama had done the same. He didn’t.
Former President Harry S. Truman spoke in 1957. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter spoke in 1974 and 1978, respectively. Then Vice President George H.W. Bush spoke in 1987 followed by a pre-recorded message from President Ronald Reagan in 1988. President George H.W. Bush spoke in 1991. First Lady Michelle Obama also brought pre-recorded greetings in 2015, and Vice President Mike Pence did the same at last year’s convention.
These days, everything the President does is political. That cannot be helped. It is widely hoped (myself included) that the Commander in Chief keeps negative politics out of his comments made to this amazing youth organization. I am curious to see if National FFA can do the same.