Some happenings are simultaneously obscure, interesting, and pregnant with historical import. When all of these elements come together, an exploration of the happening and how it shaped subsequent history cannot be anything but a great read. Such is the premise of Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis.
The historical event at the heart of Guest of Honor is a 16 October 1901 dinner between Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington. Roosevelt had just become president upon William McKinley’s untimely death at the hand of an anarchist (more on this later). Washington was a former slave who had become a respected educator and author, and was colloquially known as the black Moses.
Author Deborah Davis first learned of the Roosevelt–Washington dinner when she watched John McCain’s 2008 presidential election concession speech. She determined to study both men, the dinner, and see how it shaped American history.
The first portion of the book — and by first portion, I mean the first 200 pages — are devoted to placing Roosevelt and Washington in their time. Think of this portion as biographies of the main characters. Unfortunately, 200 pages are not nearly enough to flesh out these men. Edmund Morris’s biography of Roosevelt is a multi-volume affair, with each volume consuming 600–700 pages. Likewise, volumes have been written about Washington’s life and accomplishments. Condensing these titans into such a small space is like taking a Polaroid of the Mona Lisa: cool, but devoid of its original color and mystique.
This is not to say Davis’s account lacks compelling interludes. On the contrary, there are some gems. For example, Davis’s retelling of then President McKinley’s assassination as a uniquely American morality tale is touching. Here it is in paraphrase:
President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz shot McKinley in the chest twice before a former slave freed by Lincoln tackled Czolgosz. McKinley’s Secret Service detail then started kicking the tar out of Czolgosz. Before passing out, McKinley took the time to tell his detail, “Be easy with him, boys.”
In this tale we have (1) McKinley as Christ Figure; (2) a reference to Abraham Lincoln, the white black Moses (in contrast to Booker T. Washington, the black black Moses); (3) a slave risking his life to save (ultimately unsuccessfully) the Chief Executive of the nation that had enslaved him; and (4) the anarchy’s temporary victory, followed by its subsequent defeat at the hands of the whirl-wind force that is Theodore Roosevelt. So many touching elements packed into one tragic incident.
Alas, stories like this are the exception and not the rule.
Eventually, we are treated to the dinner we have been waiting for. What made the dinner unprecedented was that it was the first time a black man had dined with the President in the White House. What we come to understand at this point is the dinner was rather innocuous and somewhat boring. Roosevelt had been using Washington as an off-the-books adviser regarding Southern politics, particularly presidential appointments. The dinner was a conversation about such pedestrian Executive-Branch subjects.
The post-dinner portion of the book is where you would expect to find the beef, as it were — i.e., how American history was changed by the event. The beef is lacking. Davis devotes some pages to Southern racist reaction to a black man dining in the White House, which is predictably awful. She then devotes less space to Northern reaction, which is predictably more progressive in nature. Davis then moves on to additional superficial biographical accounts of the main characters. Roosevelt won re-election over the disapproval of the Southerners. Washington continued to preside over the Tuskegee Institute and help former slaves out of poverty. Eventually, as all leaders do, both men lose power and authority. They grow old and pass the way of all the earth.
Ultimately, while Davis tries to expose the historical import of the 1901 dinner, there just is not much there. It marked the first time a black man dined in the White House. It upset racists already disposed to not like the Yankee Roosevelt. The dust-up blew over rather quickly and did nothing to curtail Roosevelt’s amazingly persistent popularity. And that is about all Davis could muster from the historical record. Where’s the beef?
Ultimately, this is an example of a symbolically significant historical episode that lacked transformative historical power. Because of this, Guest of Honor, while populated by two of the most interesting men in American history, felt flat and unsatisfying.
Posted previously at Publius Online.
- Taft Twice Turned Down Appointment to the Supreme Court. So TR Picked Holmes Instead! (joshblackman.com)
- Theodore Roosevelt: As Strong as a Bull Moose (namisouthbay.com)
- Teddy Roosevelt Was Always Packin’ Heat (ghostsofdc.org)