"Guest of Honor" presents the nationally shocking dinner at which Booker T. Washington was entertained in the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt and his family. More than just the story of a dinner it presents a dual biography of two men who, although worlds apart in their social origins, shared surprisingly similar experiences and whose career paths would intersect. Both the son of a patrician and the son of a slave would lose a wife, Washington would lose two, struggle with rebellious children, and serve each other's interests in the South.
Roosevelt was a rarity in his day in that, although believing in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon, would give a high achiever his due regardless of race. Washington became a leader of his race through his advancement of education for former slaves.
Upon becoming president, TR needed eyes and ears in the South. Washington, a member of a race then heavily supportive of the Party of Lincoln, could be those eyes and ears. A working relationship with the president did wonders for Washington's prestige and his value to the Tuskegee Institute that he led.
Shortly after succeeding to the presidency, TR invited Washington to dinner to discuss federal appointments in the South. Roosevelt wanted Washington to recommend the best qualified men (no, women were not considered in those days) for job openings. The relationship was a productive, although controversial one. Although the dinner was neither publicized nor considered newsworthy by either participant it was picked up by the press and visions of a black man being a dinner guest at the White House drew storms of criticism, most violently from the South. The incident probably eliminated any chance TR may have had of cracking the Solid Democratic South.
For his part, Washington's vision of a Negro race finding success through the mastery of arts and trades rather than strictly academic pursuits, while maintaining social separation of the races attracted both adherents and detractors. Among his most vociferous detractors was W.E.B. DuBois who demanded equal rights for blacks.
Author Deborah Davis posits that the downfall of both men began with racial issues. While Washington's vision clashed with that of DuBois, Roosevelt's reputation suffered as a result of the Brownsville incident in which TR approved the discharge a unit of Negro troops over a dubious claim of rape by an unknown member of the unit. Although the respect for each would decline before their deaths, that Roosevelt-Washington dinner would be cited by John McCain as he conceded to the first black man who would dine at the White House, not as a guest, but as a host.
This book flows smoothly between the life stories of these two giants of their era. I had read of TR's plan to use a relationship with Washington for political advantage in the South, but had never before seen the ongoing political partnership explained in such depth. It is a helpful study of a rarely explored aspect of American history.