Henry F. Graff’s slender 138-page biography of Grover Cleveland is extraordinarily compact, and yet an excellent history of the man who served in America’s only ‘split presidency,’ and thus counts on the official list as both 22nd and 24th president of the United States.
Grover Cleveland is another in the Henry Holt and Company series on The American Presidents (see our earlier review of the volume on Ulysses S Grant here, here, here and here) edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz. It is, without question, a worthy contribution to that collaborative enterprise.
Graff writes eloquently of his subject in the epilogue to the volume, observing that “Cleveland lives in the national memory today almost exclusively as the president who had two nonconsecutive terms of office. He deserves a better fate, for he was once revered by millions of contemporaries for genuine merits, especially integrity. They had seen virtue enough in him to accord him popular majorities in three presidential elections. He had the ill luck to be president in a time of rampant political corruption and of economic stringency for so many of his countrymen. The public understood that what the nation required, above all, was not brilliance but the cleansing honesty and straightforwardness that he provided. Though his was a gray personality, whose words were sometimes simple homilies more suited to the pulpit than the campaign trail, he exuded sincerity and decency. No one ever doubted what he meant or where he stood.
“His career extended into the twentieth century, but his years in power were part of the horse-and-buggy era. He occupied a White House not yet fully lit by electricity, and he worked in a time when the president answered important mail himself and by hand. Many could see, though, that a different, more dynamic world was coming into being. For Americans it would be symbolized by a political style that placed the president at the center of a giant revolving stage, dominating it all like a top-hatted ringmaster. As a result, well before his life came to an end, Cleveland seemed an anachronism – vey likely even to himself – but in his times the people idolized for his principled fearlessness in the role that the contingency of history gave him to play.”
Two other brief excerpts from Henry F. Graff’s Grover Cleveland:
On Cleveland’s reaction to the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Cleveland in the 1888 election, only to be defeated by Cleveland in the election of 1892:
“Cleveland never took his eyes off the administration that had ousted him from office. Today, it is hard to know whether he privately sought vindication from the people, or whether he was bored by his life in retirement, or whether he was genuinely eager to finish the work that had been interrupted by the election of 1888.
“There was much in the Harrison presidency that distressed Cleveland. He saw his old rival, Blaine, who had helped get Harrison the nomination in 1888, once more named secretary of state. John Wanamaker, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, had become postmaster general. Indeed, there were so many heads of companies in the cabinet it was tagged ‘The Businessman’s Cabinet.’ Moreover, these men had followed traditional practice: Wanamaker, for one, fired some thirty thousand Democrats in his department to make room for Republicans. Under the guidance of House Speaker Thomas B. Reed, ‘pork-barrel bills’ of all kinds were passed, to the delight of greedy interests everywhere. Harrison even signed a bill that provided a pension for every Union veteran – making Cleveland feel personally rebuked.
“On top of everything, Congress passed the highest tariff in American history; it bore the name of its principal advocate, Representative William McKinley of Ohio. The duty on raw sugar was removed, but American sugar growers were compensated by a bounty of two cents per pound for their crop. The tariff on manufactured goods was set so high – an average of 12 percent higher than it had been – that farmers, traditionally reliable Republicans, were irate, seeing that the manufactured products they needed would be more expensive than ever. This rural wing of the Republican party was mollified somewhat by the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which increased the amount of silver purchased by the federal government each year and allowed the issuance of paper money backed by silver. Finally — John Sherman’s other contribution — the Sherman Anti-Trust Act had the appearance of eliminating monopoliesthat acted ‘in restraint of trade.’ It was a bipartisan measure designed to placate the public. Business leaders acquiesced in its passage because they regarded it as innocuous. The surplus that Cleveland had worried about so much was no more, and the country was operating in deficit. There were then many matters for the Democrats to clamor about as they set their sights on the next presidential election. Cleveland watched all of this but kept his counsel. He was observing the olde rule that ex-presidents do not comment publicly on the work of their successors.”
On Cleveland’s surgery in secret:
“Only two months after his [second] inauguration, Cleveland had begun to require medical help. He had developed a lesion in his mouth that was quickly diagnosed as a cancer, requiring immediate attention. Possibly, although there is no record that anyone said so at the time, the tumor had been caused by his use of chewing tobacco. The stakes were high, not only for the president but for the nation. The monied interests were relying on Cleveland to protect them from the nefarious designs of the ‘silver monomaniacs.’ If this ardent champion of their position should die, Adlai E. Stevenson, the vice president, a darling of the silver forces who had been made the president’s running mate solely for that reason, would sit in the White House. The alarm bells rang loudly, for the stock market could fall and the economy sink to the bottom.
“The urgent surgery on the president, therefore, was planned to be carried out in utter secrecy. Cleveland’s famous dictum, ‘Tell the Truth,’ went by the boards. It must be said, though, that the health of presidents was only beginning to be of public interest and concern, and the idea that the chief executive must reveal intimate facts about his personal well-being had not yet emerged. In Victorian America, as in Victorian England, even prying journalists knew that intimate matters concerning the body – and especially that of a respected public figure – were off limits. Chester Arthur, a decade earlier, had kept quiet the fact that he suffered from Bright’s disease, a serious ailment. While Woodrow Wilson’s massive stroke in 1919 was worldwide news, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s heart ailment and John F. Kennedy’s Addison’s disease were not made known until after their deaths. Openness about the president’s medical history has come only gradually.
“Some of the details of Cleveland’s treatment today have the aspect of bad theater. Because taking Cleveland to a clinic or hospital created a high risk of letting the cat out of the bag, the work was to be done on New York’s East River aboard the yacht of a friend, ‘Commodore’ Benedict. Anchored near Bellevue Hospital, the medical staff was ordered to stay indoors lest they be recognized by Bellevue resident doctors. To keep the president steady during the procedure as the boat edged its way northward, his chair was lashed tight to the mast . . . .In spite of rumors at the time, the general public was none the wiser until 1917, when Dr. Keen, in an article in the Saturday Evening Post, at last broke the embargo on the story.”