Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation

  • Deborah Davis
  • Atria Books
  • 320 pp.

A fascinating study of two men, their times and how they came to dine together in the most august of places.

Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer

Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington could not have been more different, or more alike. The patrician-born Roosevelt and the former slave Washington came from opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum. But both were extroverts with strong egos, both were ambitious, sometimes to a fault, and both were unabashed self-promoters.

They also, as it happened, had dinner together one night at the White House shortly after an assassin’s bullet felled William McKinley and propelled Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency of the United States. The news got out and shocked if not the entire nation, as the publisher’s subtitle hyperbolically claims, then at least a segment of the country, where “separate but equal” had just recently been constitutionally sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The story of what seems at first an unlikely pairing is engagingly told by author Deborah Davis in Guest of Honor. The title is taken from an operetta composed by ragtime pianist Scott Joplin to commemorate the event. The operetta has been all but forgotten, as has the dinner itself. Davis does a deft job of resurrecting this fascinating footnote to history.

The White House meal, which some politicians at the time tried to dismiss as an informal lunch rather than the formal sit-down dinner it was, is the dramatic peg for the story of these two strong-willed men but only a part of it. Much of what precedes are alternating chapters tracing their lives leading up to this seemingly pivotal moment in American race relations.

Davis provides a lot of interesting context, along with nuggets such as the racist antebellum origin of the 1946 Academy Award-winning song, “Zippity Doo Dah.” But she gets a few details wrong: She mistakenly places the nation’s capital “almost in the South.” In fact, it was in the South, its local laws and customs little different when it came to race and segregation from cities further south, such as Richmond, Birmingham or Atlanta. She also omits James Madison when giving the presidential line of succession after Thomas Jefferson.

But the central question is: Did this dinner really change history, as the author asserts, or was it merely an outlier, a passing exception to the racial codes of the day? The evidence Davis presents suggests more the latter than the former. The shock was transitory and mainly sectional. As Davis herself writes, “For the most part,” Northerners “supported the dinner.” In the end, it was an ephemeral event, not a tectonic one, with little lasting impact. Furthermore, it is a reach to say, as she does, that the White House dinner was a precursor to the 1960s sit-ins at Southern lunch counters.

Nonetheless, this is a fascinating study of two men and their times and how they came to dine together in the most august of places. And what a story Davis tells, about the upward trajectory of two men who had to overcome obstacles to success. In Booker T’s case, it was the legacy of slavery — indeed, he titled his 1901 memoir Up from Slavery. With TR, it was his youthful frailty overcome by his determination to be strong in mind and body, aided by his toughening “cowboy” days in the North Dakota badlands and then by his bellicose jingoism as Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, in command of the celebrated Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.

Davis is a staunch defender of Booker T, who was then and is still castigated as an “Uncle Tom.” Sympathetically, she deftly conveys the schism between former slaves like Washington, coming from a Southern agricultural background, and the more urbane and educated free black men of the North, the soil from which W.E.B. DuBois, Washington’s greatest antagonist, sprang. Both Washington and Roosevelt were widowers who remarried happily and whose daughters from their first marriages were, for better or worse, unmanageable free spirits. As TR famously said of his oldest child, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

Self-reliance was the moral principle that motivated both men. But, ironically, perhaps, Washington, though a tireless fundraiser for his Tuskegee Institute, would advocate for less reliance on others, including the government, while TR as president was eager to expand the powers of government for the common good. Each man needed the other, Roosevelt to garner political support among enfranchised black voters, and Washington to gain a say in the appointment of blacks and those sympathetic to them to federal jobs in the South.

Their mutually complementary agendas led to several meetings, of which the dinner, stemming from an almost casual invitation issued by Roosevelt, was one. The backlash, once the event was reported in the press, did not kill the relationship. But Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor as president, William Howard Taft, did not repeat the invitation, and Washington’s influence waned.

The story Davis tells ultimately has a sad coda. Both men were controversial and, in the end, unhappy. Washington was beset by failing health and by a scandal so murky yet so detrimental that it diminished his standing by the time of his death in 1915. TR’s subsequent life was no less unhappy. He saw his progressive legacy languish under Taft, his successor, and then attempted an unsuccessful bid to return to the White House, elevating in the process segregationist Woodrow Wilson to that office. He contracted malarial disease on an Amazon expedition, was denied an opportunity to fight in World War I and, still fulminating against the powers that be, died at the age of 60 in 1919. Ultimately, however, Davis notes, on January 20, 2009, America inaugurated its first African- American president, Barack Obama. Booker T. Washington had predicted such an event in 1899.

Now, 110 years later, a black man was not the guest, but the host. Though the book ends on this hopeful note, it is also worth noting, as Davis does not, that politicians representing some of the same sections of white America that invoked the doctrine of states’ rights — first to defend slavery and justify secession, and then to institutionalize and prolong racial segregation — have fought relentlessly to block or undo virtually every initiative of the first African-American president and to deny him a second term in office.

Eugene L. Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is an author and freelance writer with a special passion for history.

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