Case Study I: Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy’s easily my favorite President, both as a personality, a leader, and a human being. Almost all of his flaws, and he had plenty—the excessive animal-killing, the imperialism, the love of war, his sexism and intrinsic belief in white supremacy—are directly attributable to his times and class. He learned, because he was brilliant and intellectually curious. Like George Washington, TR was capable of evolving. He wanted to do good, and like all of us, was on a lifetime journey to find out what good was. Like most leaders who are capable of leading, he thought he had a pretty good idea of what was right, and one that was better than those of almost everyone else.
In at least one instance, however, Roosevelt personality and leadership style led to a terrible injustice.
On August 13, 1906, there was a race-related fight in Brownsville,Texas. It got out of control, turned into a full-scale riot, and one white police officer was wounded while another man, a bartender, was killed. The town blamed the black soldiers of the 25th Infantry stationed at nearby Fort Brown; tensions between the soldiers and the all-white town had been growing since the blacks arrived. The town produced spent shells from army rifles as evidence of the soldiers’ guilt, and investigators accepted them as incriminating, though they probably were planted.
All the soldiers protested that they were innocent. Their white officers backed up their claims that the soldiers had been in their barracks at the time of the melee. No military trial was ever held, but a Texas court cleared the black soldiers of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt discharged the entire regiment without honor anyway: 167 men, but only the blacks; the white officers were not disciplined. The alleged cause for the harsh punishment was that the blacks had engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” to protect the guilty member of their regiment. Some of the men dismissed had over twenty years of honorable service; one had fought alongside Roosevelt during the Spanish American War. Many were only a short time away from retirement and vested pensions. The 168 lost their careers, reputations, and retirement income.
Roosevelt withheld his decision from the public until after the mid-term elections, in which blacks, as expected, voted overwhelmingly Republican. Then TR unleashed his devastating action against the regiment. Booker T. Washington, who considered himself Teddy’s friend since he had been invited to dine with the President at the White House, a historic and groundbreaking honor, protested in a private letter to Roosevelt, and was thereafter cut off from any further meaningful access. A United States Senate committee investigated the episode in 1907-08 and upheld Roosevelt’s action. As for the President, he (typically) never acknowledged the injustice of his actions, nor did he explain his reasoning or apologize. Yet some find it significant that he left the Brownsville fiasco out of his memoirs.
In 1970, John D. Weaver investigated the incident and concluded in his history “The Brownsville Raid” that the discharged soldiers were, as they had insisted, innocent. This provoked the army to conduct a a new investigation and inspired the U.S. Congress to conduct a new study. The findings backed Weaver, so in 1972, President Richard Nixon reversed Roosevelt’s 1906 order and Congress made restitution to the soldiers’ families, and the one surviving member of the regiment.
In short, a horrible episode. As an admirer of Roosevelt, I have been troubled by this chapter in his Presidency for decades. I’m certain that Teddy believed what he did was right at the time, and even felt that he was enforcing a moral code: the soldiers should have revealed who the wrongdoer was, and to Teddy, that was that. Why he was so convinced there was a wrongdoer in the regiment is unknown.
One feature of TR’s personality that made him an effective leader was his certitude and courage in the face of opposition. That same certitude, however, is often the Achilles heel of great leaders, who cannot distinguish those many times when they are right from the few when they are wrong. Tragic episodes like the Brownsville injustice are the direct and even inevitable consequences of the features that make great leaders great. We can’t, or shouldn’t, use individual examples when great leaders are led astray by their usually excellent instincts to condemn their character or devalue their important accomplishments. They should remind us, however, that the price of requiring perfection from our heroes—not even perfection, but an absence of missteps that we find shocking in hindsight, is to have no heroes at all.
Case Study II: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
One afternoon in the fall of 1937, behind the closed doors of the Oval Office, President Franklin Roosevelt asked his friend, the businessman, stock trader, and movie mogul Joseph Kennedy, “would you mind taking your pants down?” The request was met with a blank stare. “We couldn’t believe our ears,” recalled the president’s son, James, who had arranged the meeting. “Did you just say what I think you said?” asked Kennedy. The president replied, “yes, indeed.”
James Roosevelt recalled that “Joe Kennedy undid his suspenders and dropped his pants and stood there in his shorts, looking silly and embarrassed.” The president told Kennedy, “Someone who saw you in a bathing suit once told me something I now know to be true. Joe, just look at your legs. You are just about the most bow-legged man I have ever seen.” According to the president, bandy legs were a deal breaker in Kennedy’s bid to become America’s top envoy in London. “Don’t you know that the ambassador to the Court of St James’s has to go through an induction ceremony in which he wears knee britches and silk stockings?” asked the president. “When photos of our new ambassador appear all over the world, we’ll be a laughing stock.”
Kennedy dearly wanted to become the first Irish-American ambassador to London and was not sure whether the president was kidding. After a moment’s thought, he said he could ask the Brits whether tails and striped pants would be acceptable to Buckingham Palace instead of the traditional fancy dress…“You know how the British are about tradition,” he said. “There’s no way you are going to get permission, and I must name a new ambassador soon.” If the Brits were prepared to bend protocol, and Kennedy could get a response within two weeks, the president suggested that perhaps Kennedy could after all go to the ball.
The historian describes this as “a typical FDR prank to let Kennedy believe he was an intimate, one of his inner circle. But it was also a humiliating ritual that showed who was boss.” I’ll go a lot farther than that. This is the conduct of a bully and a dictator, someone who not only is willing to abuse power but enjoys abusing it. There are few historical figures I am inclined to feel less sympathy for than Joe Kennedy, but the proper response to any leader in a democracy who decides to play Caligula is to tell him to go to Hell. Although the consequences were trivial, FDR’s cruel treatment of Kennedy causes me to regard the man as less admirable and trustworthy than his distant cousin, even in light of the Brownsville incident.
Of course, I have to accept that despite this damning episode, Franklin was a brilliant leader too.
The intersection of character and leadership is a complex one. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Spark and Pointer: Ann Althouse