The summer camp that grooms future presidents and governors


The Ivy League might be known for churning out US presidents and corporate CEOs, but many of our most powerful leaders are anointed years earlier, it turns out, at summer camp.

Founded in 1935, Boys State is a national program put on annually in 49 states (not Hawaii) that simulates a small country for about a week, with brilliant high-school kids forming a government, waging campaigns, holding elections and committing the occasional dirty trick.

Your roommate there could one day be raising your taxes.

“Some of the people we taught democracy to are now some of the most important people in our democracy,” James Lynch, dean of communications for Jersey Boys State, told The Post. The event is the subject of a new Apple TV+ documentary, “Boys State,” that is now streaming.

New Jersey alone counts Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, former Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Bob Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker among its heavy-hitting alumni. Former governor of New York George Pataki attended in New York. Outside of politics, Apple’s Tim Cook took part in Alabama and Michael Jordan went in North Carolina.

A famous photo of a 16-year-old, awed Bill Clinton shaking hands with then-President John F. Kennedy on July 24, 1963 was taken in the White House Rose Garden during Boys Nation, the national event Boys State “senators” can advance to if elected.

“I remember President Clinton, Bill Clinton, turning around and saying that someday he was going to have President Kennedy’s job,” a friend said in an ABC documentary. “And I remember saying, ‘Sure and I’m going to be pope. And I’m not even Catholic.’ ”

Thirty years later, the Hot Springs High School junior had his job — and his house.

Bill Clinton shakes hands with President John F. Kennedy during 1946 Boys Nation in Washington D.C.
Bill Clinton shakes hands with President John F. Kennedy during 1946 Boys Nation in Washington D.C.Courtesy

Boys State was started in the ’30s to kick Communism in the rear. Loyola University professor Hayes Kennedy was appalled by the Young Pioneer Camps being held in the Soviet Union — an assembly line for mini Marxes — and wanted to counter them by training American teens in democracy. Girls State was created soon after.

But this civics lesson features no textbooks or essay writing. About 1,000 teens, who have been chosen by a local American Legion chapter or applied online, descend on a college campus, form two competing political parties and duke it out for dominance.

They debate issues such as gun control, abortion or, you know, free pizza. All manner of officials are elected: mayors, assemblymen, party chairmen, but the most coveted spot is governor. And the battle, while intellectual and inspiring, can be vicious. In recent years, candidates even made video attack ads. All the while they meet real, prominent pols, such as Booker and Menendez, who return to Jersey Boys State most years.

Robert MacDougall in a scene from "Boys State."
Robert MacDougall in a scene from “Boys State.”AP

Alito hasn’t made the trip yet, because the event coincides with the week the Supreme Court issues its decisions.

The week is an experience that not only changes their lives forever, but often ours.

When then-Vice President Dick Cheney came to speak to Wyoming Boys State in 2007, he was asked by a young man if he knew, when he attended in 1958, that he would one day be vice president.

“Boys State triggered something,” Cheney said. “I ended up running for class office back in high school, as president of the graduating class. Then as I went to college, I got interested in politics and government.”

Cheney, seven years into his high-power gig, added: “And maybe somebody here will get to be vice president. After we get through today, you may decide you don’t want the job.”

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