"A Good Man is Hard to Take: Grover Cleveland – Man of Destiny"
By Mark W. Summers, Ph.D
Presented February 17, 2008 on the occasion of the 19th annual Hayes Lecture on the Presidency (sponsored by Croghan Colonial Bank)
The American people may be of two minds about presidents coming into office, but usually they can’t wait to see them go. When Grover Cleveland left the White House in 1897, many voters thought it the most constructive act of his career. Republicans at the very least should have shown gratitude: the first Democratic president since the Civil War would be the last in a generation and the last in forty years to win an outright majority.
Cleveland had been the lamest of lame ducks for more than two years. As he himself admitted, there was not a single senator he could talk to in confidence. Prominent Democratic leaders had told him to his face that they would never step through the White House door again. The president stopped holding parties; so few of Washington’s elite would accept an invitation. Even people asking favors had stopped writing him letters -- always a terrible sign. “But really, kicking the administration nowadays is considered almost as bad form as defiling a grave,” John Hay wrote. “You have never seen anything so dead…. Your fat friend has never a soul to say a good word for him, except sometimes Gray in the Senate and Wilson in the House, and if they grow too strong in his praise, both sides of the House burst out in derisive laughter.” As for policy, the president was hemmed in by a Congress so overwhelmingly Republican that he might as well not have bothered to send in his annual message. In the off-year elections, just about every House seat from Bangor to San Francisco Bay had been lost. The former Speaker’s prediction that Democratic congressmen would die in trenches, until they ran out of trenches, had been more than fulfilled -- and Grover Cleveland got much of the blame. “The administration has never lost a chance of blundering and betraying the interests of the country,” a Republican wrote. “Cleveland does not seem to have a friend in the world.”
Not even in his own party, it seemed. From other Democrats came the choicest invective. The outgoing president seemed to inspire it. “I hate the very ground that man walks on,” Alabama’s senior senator growled. South Carolina’s governor Ben Tillman promised constituents that when he became senator, he would stick a pitchfork in “that fat bag of beef in the White House,” and “Pitchfork Ben” he would be known as, the rest of his days. “That unspeakable Mugwump and oleaginous mystery,” a New Yorker snarled. “I don’t know what Mr. Cleveland is doing in your state,” a leading Virginia politician wrote a friend, ”but he has done more to disintegrate the Democracy of Virginia than any hundred men have done since the war.” The worst insult another critic could make of a Louisville editor was to pronounce him “as dead as Cleveland and [smelling] worse, if that be possible.” Comparing him to the party’s standard-bearer in 1896, young William Jennings Bryan, was, to one western Democrat, like comparing “an intellectual thunderbolt” to “a keg of sour beer.” “Cleveland thinks from the standpoint of the plutocrat,” he wrote, “Bryan from that of the people. The first was an old libertine wallowing around with disreputable widows; the last is the Sir Galahad of American politics.”
Americans usually tire of any politician outstaying the freshness of his first appearance, and Bryan’s armor would tarnish considerably before he left the spotlight. Today, unfairly, we might even see his mail as tinsel, the Nebraska knight as a moralistic mountebank. But at least we think of him, or see a perverse caricature of him in Inherit the Wind. Grover Cleveland we do not see at all. And Cleveland’s unpopularity wasn’t just the result of public weariness. He really did have the worst of luck. In any economic downturn, the Administration gets the blame, deserved or not, and the president’s unwillingness to do anything deeply angered Americans who felt that nothing ought to have been done in quite another way -- for the age of the activist state and the imperial presidency were yet in the future. Cleveland’s maintenance of the gold standard assured falling prices and almost nonexistent credit, and his deals with Wall Street magnates to buy the gold needed to prop up the dollar had made him seem the pet of plutocrats. His most popular act then may have been the one that, looking back, does him the least credit today. When railroad workers went on strike, the president sent in the army to protect strikebreakers and helped put Eugene Debs, head of the American Railroad Union, behind bars for contempt of court. The public did not mind being robbed occasionally, a radical Democrat protested, “but they insist that it be done artistically, instead of being held up in broad daylight by a presidential highwayman while a gang of bankers go through their baggage.”
Still, nobody could have been more relieved to see the presidency end than Cleveland himself. Working hard to the very end, he longed to be gone. ”As day after day passes, full of trouble and annoyances, with such small surface results, I find myself again and again saying, ‘How flat, stale and unprofitable,’ he had written a friend two years before. Without words of encouragement from his very few friends he would care about nothing but his “release from the things that surround me here.” He may not have meant retirement; what even his closest associates did not know was that the president had been operated on for cancer of the mouth. Early in his second term, doctors had found a tumor in the upper palate. Not daring alarm the financial community, Cleveland kept the news secret. He had gone off on a few days’ vacation, and while cruising on a friend’s private yacht up the Hudson River, had undergone surgery. Much of the palate and several of the teeth had been cut away and a rubber plug inserted. The whole affair would remain a secret until long after Cleveland’s death, fifteen years later -- not, by the way, from cancer -- and the president, to get used to speaking with an artificial jaw and keeping the plug from falling out in the middle of an address, hired an empty hall with a stage to practice loud public speaking in. But cancer of the mouth, even then more than today, was a disease that surgery rarely cured. Most victims died, if not on the disease’s first appearance, then with its recurrence. The president went through his second term, tired, weakened, and under the shadow of death. Given how deeply detested he was, he may even have seen such an end as a release.
By now, this audience may be hoping for a release. Why honor President’s Day by talking about such a failure? The super-greats have much more colorful lives. We can’t imagine Cleveland cutting down a cherry tree -- not just because he believed in conservation and doubled the size of our national forests, but because he would never have dreamed of taking that much exercise. And there is no record of him throwing an office-seeker across the Potomac. Lincoln split rails, Cleveland only split hairs. William Howard Taft was fatter, Chester Alan Arthur better looking, Rutherford Hayes more reflective, and William Henry Harrison much more compact, having completed his presidency in a single month. Cleveland even failed at being a failure. For galloping inadequacy, he wouldn’t even be in the running with James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson, and as for Franklin Pierce, the White House servant said it all when he declared that “Young Hickory” entered office with little opposition and left office with absolutely none.
I suppose we could make the case that Senator Roman Hruska made for a Supreme Court nominee, that mediocrity deserved to be represented, too. But we can do better. There was a greatness in Grover Cleveland, and qualities that -- along with others -- we find all too rarely in presidents. It is not for what he did, but for what he was, that he deserves to be remembered.
Cleveland had little to take into the world but a good reputation and a stern Presbyterian conscience. His parents raised nine children on less than $600 a year, and that took a frugality that he never outgrew. When his father died, Cleveland had to drop plans for attending college and had to make a living, at first teaching school for the blind and then, when prospects beckoned, clerking and studying law in Buffalo. Long hours agreed with him and so did attorney’s work. Cleveland mastered facts. He had none of the razzle-dazzle of a great courtroom attorney -- and his service in a New York law firm between presidential terms showed that he lacked the élan and legal gymnastics that made corporation lawyers rich and their clients richer. He was a plodder. But for doggedness, for thorough preparation, the bar knew no better. Unlike every other president to century’s end, he had no war record, no military title to grace his name. When the draft summoned him, he sent a substitute. But even this did him credit. Giving up the law would leave his mother and sisters without support. Except for two years as sheriff in the early 1870s, where he pulled the lever to spring two gallows-birds into eternity, Cleveland left public affairs severely alone.
Events did not leave him alone. A corrupt Republican machine ran Buffalo, and business men wanted to put honest men in power, or, anyhow, ones that cost them less. With a split looming in the GOP, Democrats needed the cleanest of front men, somebody with no political record. They chose Cleveland and elected him. For once, voters got what they had expected to get. The new mayor fought the grafters trying to gouge the city for street cleaning. He issued ringing veto messages and saw to it that professional engineers, not political hacks, laid the new sewer system. One Republican converted when, early of a morning, down by the docks, he found the mayor slathered in mud. He had made a surprise visit into the sewers himself, to look for shoddy construction -- and found it. Cleveland’s first year in office was barely half-over before Democrats nominated him for governor. Again they were lucky, Scandal had torn the Republicans apart. A clean candidate, fresh to political life, turned a Democratic win into a landslide.
Cleveland was made for the executive life. Callers got in the way of his work, which went on for fourteen hours a day or more, behind an office desk. Often midnight had passed by the time the governor laid down his pen and would sigh to his secretary, “Well, I guess we’ll quit and call it half a day.” He had no big ideas, no comprehensive program, but governors weren’t expected to. Their big job was to keep the legislature from gumming up the works, and at this, Cleveland excelled. He also proved his skill at saying no to the downstate political machines, and saying it loudest to the one running New York City, John Kelly’s Tammany Hall. When Tammany joined Republicans to block the governor’s nominations, Cleveland did not retreat an inch. “Give me a sheet of paper!” he ordered his secretary. “I’ll tell the people what a set of d--d rascals they have upstairs.” Bull-headed, inflexible: this was the Cleveland of legend, “Grover the Good,” the fittest man for a presidential nomination, less than three years from the time he had entered public life.
The great thing about having so fresh a face is that nobody knows much about you, and, in politics, to hardly know a person often is to know him well. Against that old political acrobat, the deft and dishonest James G. Blaine of Maine, reformers knew all too much. Blaine, “the Plumed Knight,” had a sky-rockety disposition, full of gossip, charm, ideas, and intrigues. He had been a skillful Speaker of the House, with a special talent for lining his own pocket -- and for writing incriminating letters that rightly warned the recipient to burn them as soon as read. Many Republicans loved Blaine, as no politician since Lincoln’s day had been loved -- “Blainiacs,” people called them. His name could even get a cheer from a Democratic crowd. Independent-minded Republicans, called Mugwumps, knew him for the most engaging crook that ever looted a railroad or stirred an audience to fury against fellow-Americans by waving the bloody shirt. They would do anything -- anything! -- to keep “the Tattooed Man,” “the Continental Liar from the State of Maine” out of the White House, even support a Democrat. Knowing so little about Cleveland beyond his public record, they saw in him the symbol of everything courageous and clean that American government so badly needed.
That is, until one week after his nomination when a Buffalo newspaper brought forth “A TERRIBLE TALE.” Ten years before, it seemed, Grover Cleveland had entered an illicit affair with Maria Halpin, a young widow. Out of their union had come an illegitimate son, soon taken from the mother’s care and committed to an orphanage. There were stories that went with it straight out of blood and thunder melodramas: how Cleveland had been seen in a bar, fighting a fellow drunk, till the blood fell in streams, over the custody of a prostitute -- how he and his law partner Oscar Folsom had gone joy-riding in a plastered condition and Cleveland’s drunken driving had led to his partner being thrown out of the carriage and killed -- how Maria had been spirited away and locked up in a madhouse by the wicked father of her child -- and, last of all, basest of all, how Maria Halpin had not been seduced, but raped, by that infamous debauchee from Buffalo, the man that nobody in polite society would have dreamed of allowing across her threshold.
Democrats panicked, as well they might. Campaigns were rough in those days, but this kind of Swift-Boating was worse than the norm. Most editors tried to pretend that there was no story at all, and refused to publish a word of it. Some tried to counter the charge by pointing out that James G. Blaine’s first child was born three months after his marriage, and suggested that this was biologically a very intriguing fact -- and when Blaine invented a story about having had another marriage a year before for which there had been no license, no witnesses, and no minister, and on a day when it couldn’t possibly have taken place, they felt that they had hit pay-dirt. In the end, it was Cleveland’s honesty that saved him. “Whatever you do, tell the truth,” he told campaign managers. Ministers came calling and got the whole story. They traveled to Buffalo, interviewed witnesses, and found that it had checked out. All the charges were untrue except one. The nominee had indeed had an affair with Maria Halpin. So had many other men -- married ones. Cleveland was not sure that he was the father, and it is very likely that he suspected who the real father was. But as the only bachelor, he felt a responsibility to claim paternity, and had taken full responsibility, legal and financial. Compare Blaine’s lying and Cleveland’s honesty, and it was just enough -- along with other mischances and accidents of the campaign -- for him to squeak through in November by barely a thousand votes. Crowds sang:
Hurrah for Maria, hurrah for the kid!
We voted for Grover, and we’re d-d glad we did!
Not all of them felt that way four years later. Still, they could have chosen worse, or for that matter less. Cleveland looked every inch a president -- in fact every inch several presidents. If as one admiring paper said, Cleveland towered above his enemies like a colossus, that must have been, an opponent suggested, because “the Stuffed Prophet” was lying down at the time. When he was beaten for re-election in 1888, Republicans sneered that this only proved that the so-called “Man of Destiny” was really just the “Man of Density.” Reportedly, one visitor, shaking his hand burst out, “I’ve voted for lots of Presidents in my time, but I ain’t never seen one before. Well, you’re a whopper!” Cleveland weighed 260 pounds and never worked hard at changing it. Exercise, except with a veto pen, was exhausting just to think about. Even his outdoor sports, duck-shooting and fishing, let him stay in a spot for a long spell of time, warmed with a generous supply of whiskey. What energy he had went into official work, and there it seemed to be without stint. He answered his own telephone, his own doorbell, his own mail, and his own conscience -- at least, when he felt on speaking terms with it, which, as a good Presbyterian, was not as often as he would like. A White House wedding to Oscar Folsom’s daughter Frances, mellowed him a little and was one of the most popular things he ever did, especially with the press. It doted on her, and in the first case of American paparazzi, turned his honeymoon into a front-page sensation, with special pavilions built just outside the country retreat’s borders, where newsmen with binoculars could peer at the newlyweds to their hearts’ content. Patent medicines put the First Lady’s face on their ads and swore that her attractiveness came from eating arsenic every day -- a remedy that Republicans were only sorry that the President didn’t try in much larger quantities. As much in compliment to her as in disparagement to him, one critic explained, “I detest him so much that I don’t even think his wife is beautiful.” She was so popular that women organized Francis Folsom Clubs in Cleveland’s re-election campaign and one of the most telling attacks on the president never showed up in the press at all: a rumor, deliberately spread by senators and party managers that Cleveland got drunk and beat his wife. (It wasn’t true, and when it came out, a Republican senator’s only defense for having passed around the story was that any story that a politician denied had to be true).
Still, Cleveland stayed pretty rough-hewn, enjoying nothing more fancy than a night of cribbage and cigars with his chums and dinner with the servants. That bluntness may be what makes him so appealing. Because, detested though he might be at the end of a second term, he was, for many years, admired, and many idealists would have followed him to the ends of the earth -- or to the end of their political careers, which is where Cleveland led some of them. “What is the use of being elected or re-elected,” he burst out once, “unless you stand for something?”
Cleveland himself stood for the kind of commonplace qualities that everybody seems to have, except, apparently, politicians. Nobody accused him of, like General Grant, having flashes of silence that were brilliant. Cleveland had no brilliance, with or without audio accompaniment. There were sharp glints in his public remarks, that would be long remembered. Who can remember words by President Garfield? or Arthur? or Benjamin Harrison? But in his own day, people connected Cleveland to words that, if he did not invent them himself, became his own: “Public office is a public trust,” and his chiding reminder to those arguing the benefits of a higher tariff, “It is a condition which confronts us --, not a theory.” All the same, Cleveland’s public papers would never earn the reading public of, say, the last Harry Potter book, and many seemed nearly as long. His prose was plodding, ponderous, and pretentious. Anyone who used phrases like “fall into innocuous desuetude” when he meant “be made harmless and inactive” was just showing off.
Mine are the sentences heavy as mailed legions,
My words are polysyllable heavy weights;
I hurl them hurtling from Thought’s upper regions,
And every word more fateful than the Fates.
And in another poem, the New York Sun wrote of a terrible revenge:
His hour had come, his foeman lay
In his power hard and fast;
For the wrong she’d suffered at this man’s hands
Revenge was his at last.
He looked on the prostrate, helpless man,
With malignant joy in his eye;
And said in a voice of fiendish hate:
“Ralph Mugwump, you must die.”
The vanquished looked up, sneered and said:
“I know for blood you thirst,
But I defy your utmost hate,
And bid you do your worst.”
“But you know not,” the other hissed,
“The death I have in view:
No pistol, knife, or poisoned cup
Have I reserved for you.
“A tortured, agonizing death
Awaits your cruel deed,
For Cleveland’s message I propose
Unto you now to read!!”
And then, despite the wretch’s cries,
The victor slowly read.
The message done, he walked away,
And left the foeman dead.
A dull style was easy to mistake for a dull mind. “What a vast, diffused, circumbient talent he has for being an ass!” John Hay, future Secretary of State wrote, adding for good measure that the same went for everyone that trusted him. Critics claimed that he probably knew less about more things than any other man in America, which explained the turgid style of his presidential messages. He was hiding his stupidity behind “archaic and obsolete words of resounding length.” When he was reported to have been assassinated, one enemy commented, “the people naturally supposed he had been struck with an idea.” “He should be treated for ossification of the heart and fatty degeneration of the head,” an editor exclaimed.
It wasn’t what Cleveland didn’t know that bothered his critics. It was what he believed, and how hard he believed it. Cleveland’s administration stood, first of all, for reform, just as the Mugwumps had hoped. Civil service reform was new on the books, and Cleveland, like every president, inclined to reward members of his own party first. But not necessarily last. The number of federal workers covered by the merit system expanded, and those protected from firing for their political beliefs -- though Cleveland, like most presidents after him, issued executive orders expanding those protections most eagerly just before he was leaving office, the better to keep a Republican from replacing them. But from the first, he kept on some Republican officeholders, and that never changed; his Secretary of State in his second term was a onetime candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. George Cortelyou would become Secretary of the Treasury under Theodore Roosevelt and a dark-horse candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But he entered government late in Cleveland’s last term. There must have been some mistake, Cortelyou protested, when the president invited him to become his private secretary. He was a Republican, after all. Cleveland only got irritated. “I don’t care anything about your politics,” he snapped. “All I want is somebody that is honest and competent to do my work.”
Except that it seemed as though all work was Cleveland’s work. Cortelyou never got a chance to take dictation; the president wrote every paper out himself. No one could wonder who was in charge of his Administration. “Cleveland treated Congress as an unruly kindergarten,” an editor complained, “and his Cabinet officers as mere clerks.” That didn’t keep the same editor from insisting that Cleveland was the puppet of “his kitchen cabinet, fortune-tellers and colored mascots,” flattered “by sharpers and fawned upon by fools until he became lost in the awful gloom of his own supposed greatness, isolated in the everlasting night of what he didn’t know.”
“We love him most for the enemies he has made,” a supporter declared. If so, Cleveland must have been the most deeply loved president since Lincoln. He had a positive talent for making enemies. His veto messages stung with rebukes, and he issued as many as a hornet’s nest does hornets, when stirred up. “To say ‘No’ gracefully is a difficult accomplishment,” an historian would write, “”but even Mr. Cleveland’s ‘Yes’ was often irritating.” Senators felt as if they were being dictated to, and their expectations of jobs for their friends never got a kindly hearing at the White House, unless they could show the nominee’s fitness and had the paperwork to prove it. Businessmen who contributed to the president’s campaign discovered that, far from being allowed their demands, Cleveland almost went out of his way to disappoint them. Their donations had made them suspect; whatever he did for them, it must be on the merits of the case alone. “Inordinate gall and base ingratitude are Cleveland’s integrants, his component parts,” a Democrat complained. Or, as an admirer put it, the presidential character had more than its share of “you-be-damnedness.”
Being that offensive was no mere nine-to-five job. The presidency was the same as the governorship, with several times the work and far more people to exasperate. Cleveland throve on work. One of his Cabinet officers, William L. Wilson, sat with him for five hours, sifting over post office appointments. Cleveland had to study every one of them. It was two in the morning before Wilson had had enough. “I fear Mrs. Cleveland will not bless me for keeping you up so late,” he said, leaving. “Oh, no, no,” the president told him. “This a very ordinary thing with me, and she never finds it out.”
But he had to work that hard. Every bill that might have a steal, every “earmark” needed a sentinel able to call halt. To the very last days of his Administration, the president kept sifting through private pension bills and sending back scorching vetoes. “Don’t the American people see how their money is going?” he exploded. “It isn’t ‘out at the bung’ -- the whole barrel is going.”
It was refreshing when the administration took out after the grafters fattening on navy contracts. It would have been even more refreshing if the firm it pilloried had actually been guilty. Other presidents vetoed pork barrel schemes. None till now had set his hand against the private veterans’ pension bills. Many of them were swindles: widows claiming compensation for long-dead husbands who had drowned in a canal trying to escape the draft officers, civilians who fell off ladders twenty years after their war service ended, and blamed their hernias on an eye infection long since cured.
Critics could well believe that he was still working on veto messages past midnight: only that could explain why he was so often in the dark. To every day politicians, Cleveland’s righteousness was his most offensive trait. They might have said, as Disraeli did of Gladstone, that they didn’t so much object to the president having the Ace up his sleeve, but did object to him imagining that God Almighty put it there. “If there were a wire running to the Throne of Grace,” a Texas critic complained, “he’d issue orders to Almighty God, remove Christ Jesus as a Communist and give some Massachusetts Mugwump his job.”
That assumed that Cleveland knew that there was a difference between God and himself, and those licking their wounds from a presidential encounter weren’t so sure.
I am the thinker in whose convolutions
The word of utter wisdom incubates;
I am the safety of our institutions,
The sacred sovereign of these sovereign States.
I am the hand that guides, the mind that teaches,
The greatest storehouse of the best brain food;
My messages, my papers, and my speeches
Are one great digest of the True and Good.
Me the rapt Cuckoo with shrill jubilation,
Proclaims and praises seven days in the week;
I glitter with the oil of Consecration,
And Sapience is pale upon my cheek.
I scorn the party with its heat and clamor,
To me submissive it must bend the knee,
Where in the radiance of my own glamour
I sit and worship my imperial Me .
“Cleveland is a ‘strong man’ exactly as the hog is a strong animal,” wrote editorialist William Cowper Brann. “Stubborn without courage, persevering without judgment and greedy without gratitude, these unpleasant characteristics Cleveland and the hog have in common. There are several other points of resemblance; but I have no desire to be hard on the hog.”
Yet, from the start, it is very possible that Cleveland was more popular among ordinary people than among the pundits and politicians. One contractor who wanted a favor is said to have called on the president not so long before an election. He had political connections, enough to deliver some crucial votes in New York City. When he came out, a friend asked him how things had gone. “Ah, he’s the greatest man I ever saw,” said the contractor reverently. “He’s a fine man -- a grand man. He wouldn’t promise to do one d--d thing I asked him!” That was good enough to clinch his vote, and all the others he could muster. A Texas lawmaker came back to speak about his good work in Congress to his constituents at the depth of the depression. The speech seemed to go very well, at least to the end. Then an old Democratic farmer piped up. “I heern you, judge,” he allowed, “and it’s all right what you’ve been sayin’ about silver and the tariff, but what you fellers ought to do is to wind up your business just as quick as you can and go home. You’re only botherin’ the old man.”
Maybe he meant that Cleveland disliked Congress trespassing on presidential turf, which was true. No president had been as forceful in hurling back encroachments and asserting executive power since Lincoln’s day. But he may have meant something else: that to people like Cleveland, the best Congress was one that did nothing in particular and did it well. Later, critics would see “the old man” as an example of everything wrong in the “L” word -- in liberalism, nineteenth-century style, where reform meant a government that was kept clean and caged up close, like canaries.. Today, it would seem the chilliest of small-government conservatism, deeply suspicious of centralized power, more interested in paring programs back than in devising new ways of coping with an America suffering from the growing pains of an industrial revolution. When droughts swept Texas and Congress appropriated $10,000 to help victims buy new seed, the president killed the bill. “Though the people should support the government,” he once declared, “the Government should not support the people.”
Cleveland’s words were more negative than his deeds. As governor he had protected Niagara Falls by turning it into a state park and had put through a law to force every bank to open its books to examiners once a year. As president, he set the Justice Department to work challenging railroad land grants. Eighty one million acres were returned to the public domain. The Union Pacific had found every excuse not to repay its debt to the national government. Now, no excuse would do. One of Cleveland’s most influential backers wanted to run a railroad through Indian territory; another thought that his generous campaign contribution entitled him to special grazing rights on the public lands. They came away from the White House with nothing but curses - and even those they had to supply for themselves. Chester Alan Arthur had added four new vessels to the Navy. Cleveland added thirty. Most courageously of all, he took on that great symbol of the cozy partnership between business and government, the protective tariff, that “mother of trusts,” and called for serious revenue reform. He never got it. With a Republican senate blocking the way, even the most modest changes would have been rebuffed, and the House’s bill was downright self-effacing. Cleveland’s courage in pushing the tariff was tidal: it ebbed and flowed. But it was enough to drown his
prospects of a second term. He outpolled Benjamin Harrison, but those votes were in the wrong places. Narrow defeats in Indiana and New York lost the electoral college.
It was all over -- or so it seemed. But Mrs. Cleveland forecast the future right when she told the servants to take good care of the furnishings: they would be back in another four years. And so they were. Harrison, who, it was said, could make a thousand strangers into friends by a single speech and then turn them all into enemies just by shaking hands with them, would go into history with that unique indignity, a thin slice of piety set in between two fat slabs of Cleveland presidency. The ex-President was so much a celebrity that when his wife gave birth to their first child, a company named the Baby Ruth candy bar after her. Crowds sang,
Grover, Grover, four more years of Grover
Out they go, in we come, and we’ll be in the clover.
By then, Cleveland stood for three things, and not just one: civil service reform, tariff reform, and election reform. Whether he had been beaten by bought votes in Indiana, marched to the polls in blocks of five, as legend had it, or the knifing, swapping and trading that conniving New York Democrats used to carry their governor and ditch their president, “Grover the Good” had become a symbol for three kinds of changes, two of them vital if any government could be trusted as the will of the people, and the third a crucial down-payment in the movement to separate the barons of business from the profit-sharers of politics. Politically we have entered on the golden age here,” liberal reform editor Edwin L. Godkin wrote, two weeks into Cleveland’s second term.
Godkin may have seen the promised land, but like Moses, would not live to enter it. By autumn, he was bewailing the disappointment at opportunities lost for a clean moral sweep. But losing hope was nowhere as traumatic as losing a living; at least Godkin could eat regularly, even if all his editorials read like those of a man writhing in indigestion. Cynics called the president’s re-election another case of :”Cleveland luck.” So it was -- bad luck. The once and future president came in just in time for a Wall Street panic and the worst economic depression of a lifetime. None of his virtues could drive the wolf from the door. Little credit does a man standing on principle get from those standing in a bread-line. Never did his stubbornness look more like well-fed ego in an ill-fed time. Reporters noticed that Cleveland’s state papers used the pronoun “I” more often than they thought seemly: “It is my purpose,” and “I am satisfied” in those days of mini-government, seemed positively regal, and one cartoon showed the president as a map of the United States, with the caption
My country ‘tis of Me,
Of me I sing!
The very traits that held Cleveland in such good stead against small-time steals -- his determination, his courage, and his inability to listen to reason once he had made his mind up -- left him paralyzed when it came to finding ways back to prosperity. The faith that can move mountains can also keep them from budging. The “you-be-damnedness” that made Cleveland so appealing when he blistered the spoilsmen looked callous when it was turned on farmers and workers who wanted a government that would support the people. Denouncing the senators who refused to go along with tariff reform as guilty of “public perfidy” made a good sound-byte; calling the friends of high duties believers in “the communism of pelf” sounded downright radical. But how could either get the president any closer to what he wanted? There was a story at the time of Mrs. Cleveland, shaking her husband as he lay asleep in the late hours of the night. “Mr. Cleveland,” she said, “I think there are robbers in the House.” “No, my dear,” said Cleveland, “not in the House. But there are plenty in the Senate.” But sometimes presidents, to gain anything at all, have to make terms with the robbers. Virtue is always the strongest armor, but armor can immobilize a warrior when he is down. Of course the President was sincere, William Jennings Bryan allowed. But so were Indian mothers who threw their children to the crocodiles in the Ganges. The only thing Cleveland could do that all parties approved of was leave town to go fishing.
In the Dismal Swamp, he is hidden where
There can come no sound of the soulful swear
Of the party leaders, whose disgruntlement
Gruntles back at the President.
His nerve his shattered, and his sensitive soul
Shrinks from the pokings of the party pole;
So he hies himself to the dark lagoon,
Where the bittern bloometh its dismal tune;
And he feels in his miasmatic prison
The bittern’s tune is not bitter’n his’n.
In the Dismal Swamp, in his lone canoe,
He chases the will-o-the-wisp hoodoo;
And the swish of the waves ’neath the restless prow
Has shut from his ears the ruction and row
That are going on in the party he
Believes he has owned since ’93.
Oh! The Dismal Swamp is a fit place to
Think dismal thoughts of his dismal do.
So in the end, everyone was glad to see the last of Cleveland. He had proven what we should have known already, that for greatness, character is not enough. The former president may well have agreed with them. His last words, as he lay dying, “I have tried so hard to do right,” sound more plaintive than smug, as if he himself saw how insufficient all his good intentions had been to do what needed to be done. Editors invited him to write articles. Cleveland turned them down: what would anything he wrote get beyond catcalls and cackles? He opposed the war with Spain, but nobody listened -- denounced our venture into empire, and was treated as the one fixed point in a changing age. His ideas of government went out with the century.
And yet. Cleveland did not live to be diminished to a ready source for jokes on late-night talk shows the way so many of our own ex-presidents have been. Both McKinley and Roosevelt sought him out for a high appointment, though both were turned down. Whenever reformers tried to wrest New York City from Tammany, Cleveland was the one speaker they insisted on hearing. He lifted his voice against Russia’s persecution of the Jews, and who with better right than a president who had stood foursquare against those who wanted to close the doors to immigrants from the non-Protestant reaches of Europe? The presidency had only obscured what Americans realized when the glory of high office had faded, that no country can thrive, nor survive without what Cleveland had, an uncommonly large supply of the common virtues. Qualities like that can never fall into an innocuous desuetude.
In our own time, when the pomp and pageantry of the presidency only seems to diminish the reputations of those who hold it, we should remember Cleveland, not for what he did, but for what he was. Ideally, all our chief executives would be Lincolns, not Fords -- with the physical vigor of one Roosevelt and the emotional vigor of the other. But it is a condition that confronts us, not a theory. Possibly we should ask for less -- and very likely more: a man of second-class intellect but first-class temperament, who believes, as Cleveland did, that public office is a public trust -- and can say at the end, with the humility that he did, no more than, “I tried so hard to do right.”