Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"Guest of Honor" by Deborah Davis (2012)

Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington both struggled mightily to attain their respective statures in life. Roosevelt struggled against childhood illness and asthma, while Washington struggled against the whole of society, to attain access to the fruits of which most of his race were denied. That they were to meet someday should come as no surprise.

The story told in this book really begins with the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. TR was just a boy when the slain President’s funeral procession passed by his home in NYC, and he considered Lincoln to have been one of our nation’s finest leaders. Ms. Davis’ use of that friendship as a backdrop for the story of Roosevelt’s dinner with Booker T. Washington gives the reader a more clear understanding of the evolving times in which that dinner occurred.
During that dinner, which was held behind closed doors on a Sunday night in the White House, TR spoke with Washington about the problems attendant with making any real progress for the African-American masses. Booker T. had already established his famed Tuskegee Institute with great success, and the President had unbridled respect for any man who could overcome the many barriers which life often erects to thwart progress. He had overcome his own, and deeply admired men of like mind.
TR had a plan to impart to his friend; why not make African–American appointments in the North where there was less opposition to the idea? During reconstruction there had been prominent black political leaders in the South, but with the end of Reconstruction, in the 1870’s, Jim Crow became the “norm” and the election of blacks to various local offices; and their election to more prominent ones; became a fool’s dream. TR’s plan, enthusiastically supported by Booker T., would enable the African-American’s appointed in the North to showcase their talents and abilities. Hopefully, these examples would serve to ease the path to equality for blacks in the South.
The author paints a complete picture of both men, and their accomplishments. The chapter on the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War was of special interest to me. Many Americans are not aware that Roosevelt was an Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Navy John Long at the time hostilities broke out.  When Secretary Long was at home, presumably ill for the day, Roosevelt usurped his authority and virtually “jump started” the war with Spain just one week after the USS Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor.

By April, TR was in command of a Volunteer Regiment which he had organized himself. This regiment was comprised of the most diverse volunteers imaginable, including a Harvard football player, 4 New York City Policemen, various cowboys and Indian fighters with whom TR was acquainted, and even some Indians from our Southwest. There was also at least one confessed murderer in the regiment. Roosevelt had his uniform custom made at Brooks Brothers in New York before sailing off to war, and a solid place in history.
This is a highly entertaining, and informative book, which brings history to life for the reader. The author has seamlessly turned the story of one dinner into a highly charged, and multi-faceted, narrative of America in the last decades of the 19th Century, and successfully taken us into the early years of the 20th Century. With its section of notes, and a complete bibliography of sources, Ms. Davis has penned a real winner with this one.

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