EACH PRESIDENTS DEALS DIFFERENTLY
WHAT TEDDY ROOSEVELT’S BIGGEST BLUNDER REMINDS US
We need to remember that all presidents make mistakes – some large, some small.
In a recent interview, Barack Obama told Diane Sawyer that he makes a mistake “every hour, every day.” His speech about drone warfare essentially looks at his own administration’s policy and questions it, looking for ways to correct it.
This is a good sign.
We all make mistakes. The worst thing to do is to keep going – throwing good money after bad, even doubling down by moving even harder and faster — down the wrong path when you should have stopped, adapted and corrected. “No matter how far wrong you have gone,” as the saying goes, “you can always turn around.”
Teddy Roosevelt’s mistake took the better part of a century to correct.
Other presidents have not been so quick to acknowledge a wrong turn. James Buchanan was dead-set in his refusal to corral the southern states as they began secession efforts. Abraham Lincoln begged him, over and over, to reconsider, and deal squarely with the southern problem. Buchanan refused. The Civil War resulted. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson voted in favor of a punitive Treaty of Versailles in the mistaken hope that a new League of Nations could compensate for it. He was wrong, and one might argue that World War II was the direct consequence of his titanic miscalculation. Historians include Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 as well as more obvious recent blunders (JFK and the Bay of Pigs, Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Lewinsky) in the list of presidential mistakes. In each case, the chief officer had repeated chances to change course, but could not bring himself to admit his own gaffe.
One spectacular yet little-known case of good money after bad occurred in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. On November 5, 1906, Roosevelt issued Presidential Special Order 266, dismissing 167 members of the all-black 25th Infantry in what historian Lewis L. Gould calls “one of the most glaring miscarriages of justice in American history.” Roosevelt believed theses troops had shot up the town of Brownsville, Texas. “Some of these men are bloody butchers,” Roosevelt declared when Ohio Senator Joe Foraker objected, “and ought to be hung.” Foraker asked for a trial, so that the soldiers could speak in their own defense: “They ask for no favors because they are Negroes, but only for justice because they are men.” Roosevelt responded by trying to bribe Foraker with an ambassadorship; when this failed, he ran Foraker out of the Senate. A New York Times editorial concluded that Special Order 266 had done a great wrong, and that Roosevelt, instead of correcting it, was making an undignified effort to save face. Roosevelt doubled down. He sent Treasury Service secret agents as well as a pair of private detectives, Herbert Browne and William Baldwin, to dig up dirt on the dismissed troops. They found none. Still, Roosevelt would not consider reversing his decision, even though he had dismissed some of the same men with whom he had stormed up San Juan Hill. They remained dismissed without honor or trial from the Army, barred from civil service of any kind (and that meant something to a black man in 1906). Roosevelt never confessed to having made a mistake in the Brownsville affair. His autobiography did not mention the word “Brownsville.”
Sixty years later, a journeyman writer named John D. Weaver, the son of a clerk at the 1906 hearings, embarked on a campaign to exonerate the soldiers. He dug up the documents of the original trials and Senate hearings on the episode; he visited the small Texas town where the soldiers had been stationed. In 1971, he published a book setting forth his version of the true story behind Special Order 266. In February of 1973, the U.S. Army issued an apology to the men of the 25th Infantry and awarded the sole surviving battalion member (Dorsie Willis) back pay. Roosevelt had acted on impulse alone; the evidence was inconclusive. The mistake took the better part of a century to correct.
In a 2006 ceremony marking the centennial, Congressman Solomon Ortiz was the main speaker. An Army veteran, he served a member of the House Armed Forces Committee. “Today, we take a hard look at our past,” he began. “When we acknowledge our mistakes, we become better citizens.” He continued: “I am here to honor those 167 soldiers.” The crowd applauded. “What we’re doing today – in acknowledging these events – this is going to bless our community.” The high school students read every one of the 167 names, and planted a flag in that soldier’s honor. So maybe Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 mistake has finally been corrected.
Today we have a president who is quick to admit his foibles. “I make mistakes every hour, every day” he says, so the wrong step can be corrected, and we can all get on the right path.
Good for him.