An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland By H. Paul Jeffers
Controversy over confederate flags, supporters loving him because of the enemies he made, a brutal campaign marked by accusations involving women, a president preferring regular street food rather than the French food prepared by the White House Chef, a vicious press putting forth ridiculous lies because of their hatred for him, a man who made his name in New York then won the presidency against long odds.
You might think this is a tale of recent vintage, but these are stories from the life and presidency of Grover Cleveland. Mark Twain is reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Cleveland comes from the line of now mostly forgotten presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, but stories of honest and decent men are always worth telling.
- Paul Jeffers does a great job capturing the essence of Cleveland as a man and as president. It is said that adversity is the fire that people either fall prey to or they rise up to meet and it makes them stronger. In the earlier chapters focusing on the younger Cleveland you get a sense of an ambitious young man, but someone who has not yet had the benefit of those trials to mold him.
Public office and the small compromises to one’s integrity all officials are faced with seem to have been that character forming experience for Cleveland. His rise was meteoric from Mayor of Buffalo to Governor of New York, to President of the United States in a little over three years.
In the era of Tammany Hall where patronage and corruption were so pervasive as to be almost unremarkable, it was Cleveland who began to push back against that way of governing. As Governor it was a young assemblyman named Theodore Roosevelt whose views of Tammany and civil service reform he shared that wound up being Cleveland’s occasional ally. During one reform effort Teddy speaking in the assembly uttered this gem, “A czar who is forced to be reelected every two years is not much of an autocrat. I would rather have a responsible autocrat than an irresponsible oligarchy of contemptible aldermen protected by their own obscurity.”
As Governor, Cleveland adhered to the text of the constitution. One particularly popular bill made it to his desk where he expected to approve it after studying it. However in discovering one of the clauses to run counter to New York’s constitution he vetoed it, expecting to be vilified. He took this strict constructionist view of the constitution to the White House, where was lobbied to appoint the speaker of the house, a political ally as Chief Justice. Cleveland balked, citing the speaker’s reputation as a notorious drunk, “I’m not gonna appoint a Chief Justice that might get picked up in the street some morning.”
Confiding to a friend before the 1884 nominating convention, Cleveland hoped to escape the nomination. The election of 1884 that followed wound up being one of the ugliest in American history. Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child early in his life and James G. Blaine the Republican nominee discovered this and made hay of it. What is most remarkable, is how Cleveland dealt with his earlier failing. His supporters wanted him to deny the allegation, but Cleveland made no excuses and admitted it. The Blaine campaign eventually overreached and allowed Cleveland to take advantage of a foolish statement that the democrats stood for “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.” Cleveland’s people cleverly publicized the charge to every Catholic populated precinct from Maine to Florida. Cleveland won one of the closest elections in history carrying New York by a tenth of a percent (1,149 votes) and with it the presidency, becoming the first democrat to assume the office since James Buchanan.
As president he continued to champion civil service reform as an antidote to widespread patronage. When a Democratic Party boss came to his office looking for Cleveland to appoint some crony, the president in exasperation asked “Well, do you want me to hire another horse thief for you?” Cleveland was also one of the first presidents to make a statement against government welfare, well ahead of its widespread appearance “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
When the British were getting overly involved in Venezuela, it was Cleveland who brought back the Monroe doctrine with gusto, giving the British the option of either having the U.S. arbitrate their dispute or facing down the barrels of American ships. The British backed down. The British were an easier mark than the press at home however. ”I don’t think there ever was a time when newspaper lying was so general or so mean as at present,” Cleveland lamented.
There is a charm in the common nobility of the man. He would personally answer the White House door, as well as the newly installed telephone. There is a similarity to Harry Truman in his honesty towards his own imperfections, the difficulties inherent in the office and in determining the motives and ambitions of men seeking his ear.
Having two post presidencies Cleveland pondered on what a president is to do after leaving office “A feller has to remain a loafer the rest of his life because he happened to be president. Harrison tried to go back to the law and everyone laughed. It seemed so queer to have a former president up there arguing.” When he was asked however about doing an autobiography he replied that “the autobiography that counted was the one his wife and children had written on their hearts.”
Jeffers brings Cleveland to life in a way that you are sad to him go when the book ends. Cleveland was a rare creature in political life; One with courage, who bucked the trend of machine politics in his own party and in the country at large, and one who was driven not by adulation but by what he perceived as the right thing to do.