Don’t forget Grover Cleveland

Published 12:16 pm Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I’m a day late to spin some yarn on President’s Day and three weeks early to celebrate a less remembered, but no less noteworthy, presidential birthday. Obscurity and all the freedom it affords is an exciting concept to me anyway, so allow me to talk about the latter option.

Stephen Grover Cleveland was the lone standard-bearer of the Democratic Party to live in the White House from 1861 to 1913, which covers Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the run-up to U.S. involvement in World War I. It’s the part of American history notable, in part, for political corruption, warp-speed technological advances, and the peddling of ointments that the medicine runners said could cure everything from baldness to the common cold. It seemingly wasn’t the type of zeitgeist that you’d think could produce a president who was the son of a minister who lived in a boarding house in his early years as a studious, workaholic lawyer who sometimes defended political protesters pro bono. He also limited his leisure time to just a few weeks a year, usually duck hunting or bass fishing.

It’s remarkable that biographers have noted his steely character as an enduring legacy of his two, nonconsecutive presidencies. The 2000 book “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” by Alyn Brodsky, while a bit over the top in terms of the author’s praise of the 22nd and 24th president, notes Cleveland’s attention to detail (he worked into the and eschewing of political polling (egad!). “I have tried to hard to do right,” are said to be his last words before dying of a heart attack in 1908 at 71. Another writer of the period’s headier figures, Allan Nevins, wrote in 1932 that Cleveland “had no endowments that thousands of men do not have. He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence and common sense. But he possessed them to a greater degree other men do not.”

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The praise is doubly impressive because Cleveland was hit with torpedoes that would sink most political candidates’ battleships before they ever leave shore. One, in particular, echoes of today’s political scandals.

As Brodsky notes, Cleveland “was not known to court any woman; his preference was for the occasional dalliance.” In 1874, while lawyering in Buffalo, he began dating a widow named Maria Crofts Halpin — a liaison that might have produced a daughter. I say ‘might’ because not Cleveland nor his law partner (or anyone else in the age before DNA testing) knew the child’s paternity. He assumed responsibility for the child, Ms. Halpin’s third, because he was the lone bachelor among the ahem, possible suspects. This in itself would qualify as a major feat of character these days for a man in that position.

A combination of telling the truth about the aforementioned situation and a splintering of factions within both major political parties landed Cleveland in the White House with a paper-thin majority in the popular vote and a small cushion in the Electoral College. He was also the second-youngest elected president up to that time, at 47 years, Once there, he began laying the groundwork for the trust-busting for which Teddy Roosevelt got more notoriety. He ruffled feathers in the railroad industry by allowing 81 million acres to go back to public domain since agreements penned largely by the industry weren’t honored to the letter. Presidential appointees were kept or let go in his first term on merit much more so than political affiliation compared to his immediate predecessors. He beat back multiple efforts from a Republican Senate to frustrate him, including one bill that sought to give Civil War veterans a pension whether their disabilities were caused by actual combat or not. His 414 vetoes in his first term alone were, far and away, a record that stood until FDR’s time. One rejected the federal purchase of $10,000 in seed grain for farmers in Texas who’d been hit by a pretty bad drought there. Cleveland’s reasoning seemed taken from a form of pure libertarianism not even the Libertarians could match.  “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood,” he said. Interestingly, he carried Texas all three times he ran for the office.

After he married a 21-year-old college student while he was still in his first term, another close election followed in 1888. He was on the losing end of it this time, but, as his spunky little wife reportedly told White House staffers, they would return four years later. A perfect storm of economic calamity ruined his second term, a maelstrom that involved a “railroad bubble” much like the housing bubble of a few years ago and shaky financing that made for the worst depression in the U.S. up to then.

On a local note, Cleveland, Mississippi was named for ol’ Grover. His ranking in many a list of “presidential rankings” compiled by scholars over the years has him in the middle of the pack — ahead of Nixon and both Bushes but usually behind LBJ and Barack Obama. Few presidents have had biographers so clear to confirm a consistent vision of character and emphasis on merit that he had. And it’s apparent that his will remain unique in that regard for quite a while.

Danny Barrett Jr. is the assistant managing editor. He can be reached by email at danny.barrett@vicksburgpost.com.