Honesty and Public Officials

We need absolute honesty in public life; and we should not get it until we remember that truth telling must go hand-in hand with it, and that it is quite as important not to tell an untruth about a decent man as it is to tell the truth about one who is not decent.

—Theodore Roosevelt, Outlook, May 12, 1900 [pg. vii]

Roosevelt’s comment underscores a major theme in A SOUL ON TRIAL and an issue that concerns Americans—today even more than a century ago. It seems particularly in 2012 as our national discourse has centered on issues of honesty among public officials for much of the past decade. There is a certain irony to the fact that Rosa Sutton was not able to secure a second hearing during the Roosevelt administration; she and the president would have had an interesting dialogue with each other. In many ways she was just the type of feisty, determined individual he respected; but she was taking on an institution that he admired and had a very personal interest in—America’s Navy.

The more documents I read related to this case, the clearer it became how complex it was to decipher the truth in the face of conflicting testimony from men and women who experienced the tragedy differently; each person saw the truth through the lens of his or her own belief system. The dichotomy between reality and memory became critical in weighing the evidence—primarily the marines’ testimony—in this case. What motivates people to say the things they do or to refrain from saying certain things? Finding that out is part of the job of a historian as well as a prosecutor or a detective or (even a psychologist). And sometimes it’s impossible to do that without the perspective of time passing.   Only decades after an event occurs–  perhaps after all the participants in an event have died —  can certain types of personal questions be explored  revealing why people reacted the way they did during a crisis.

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