Our underrated 22nd -- and 24th -- president
Dec 4, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 12 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
Grover Cleveland keeps popping up in American politics. He made his last appearances in the nineties as journalists sought to prove that charges levied about Bill Clinton's "private life" and public conduct were hardly without precedent. Cleveland, however, had admonished his "handlers" to "tell the truth" when responding to allegations -- a far cry from Clinton's motto, "We'll just have to win, then."
With the nation still awaiting the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, Cleveland is back in view. He was, after all, the last man to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote. But, again, the parallel is limited. Cleveland, unlike Vice President Gore, refused entreaties to contest his defeat on the "moral" ground that he was the people's choice. He was mindful of having sworn to uphold a Constitution that included the Electoral College. And he wanted to avoid the tumult that occurred a dozen years earlier when Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote but lost the electoral after a partisan congressional commission intervened.
Two new and welcome biographies vividly describe the man known to his nephews as "Old Jumbo": H. Paul Jeffers's An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland and Alyn Brodsky's Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character.
A towering politician of his generation, Cleveland has been unfamiliar to most Americans and even many historians. Students of presidential trivia know him as the only Democrat elected president between James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson, the only president to serve non-consecutive terms, a "draft dodger" who sent a substitute to fight in the Civil War, the candidate who admitted to having fathered a child out of wedlock, the first president to wed while in office, and the president who vanished from public view to undergo surgery for cancer.
Richard Hofstadter once observed that Cleveland "stood out, if only for his honesty and independence, as the sole reasonable facsimile of a major president between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt." Jeffers and Brodsky both see Cleveland as a major historical figure, a leader of courage and conviction who compiled a substantial record of achievement as president. Brodsky's is by far the superior study, but Jeffers's, in spite of various factual errors, will appeal more to general readers. Together, Brodsky and Jeffers fill a glaring gap and finally give Cleveland his due.
Cleveland thought of public service as a "business engagement" between officeholders and the public. He stressed the "trusteeship" aspects of his various jobs so often that his handlers worked it into the Cleveland motto: "Public office is a public trust." In his meteoric rise from mayor of Buffalo to governor of New York to president in a span of four years, he showed himself, like his hero Andrew Jackson, the master of the "veto." He used it to block what he perceived to be unfair give-always, measures he deemed unconstitutional, and encroachments on the powers of the executive. His willingness to oppose special interests (especially Tammany Hall) gave meaning to another line associated with Cleveland: "They love him for the enemies he has made." To reformers of all stripes, Cleveland seemed the perfect antidote to the political corruption of the "Gilded Age," which included "Credit Mobilier," "Whiskey ring," scandals in the Grant administration, and rampant patronage and payoffs.
A Democrat, Cleveland led a party that was considerably different from what it became under Franklin Roosevelt and remains under Al Gore. As president, he stood for strong states' rights, low taxes, a limited federal government, the gold standard, and free trade. The modern Democratic party -- or at least the faction that marches under the "New Democrat" standard -- embraces only the last.
No friend of entitlements, Cleveland vetoed an appropriation of $ 10,000 to assist Texas farmers who had suffered through a drought. His reason was simple. "Though the people support the government," he said, "the government should not support the people." Cleveland took satisfaction in the fact that his first administration had "not corrupted or betrayed the poor with the money of the rich." And so he vetoed what he considered lavish pensions to Civil War veterans, contributing to his defeat in 1888.
Cleveland opposed tariffs because they provided politicians with the means of dispensing favors. He saw surpluses as temptations to bribe voters, reward friendly constituencies, and, worst of all, spend public moneys for the benefit of only some. Funds taken in by the government in excess of its costs were an "indefensible extortion and a culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice."
Even when he deviated from his principles, it was for the sake of a greater good. Cleveland sent 4,000 federal troops to Chicago to break the Pullman strike in 1894. A believer in arbitration, he had asserted that the federal government should not weigh in on such matters. He justified this intervention, though, on the need to keep interstate commerce and mail deliveries flowing.
Cleveland showed an enlightened attitude toward Native Americans. He favored dispersing reservation lands as private property to Indian families, improving education, and extending citizenship. Unlike his Republican opponents, however, he was unwilling to enforce the voting rights awarded emancipated slaves. During his second term, the Supreme Court handed down Plessy v. Ferguson ("separate but equal"), which he supported.
Throughout his public life, Cleveland displayed an integrity rare in the annals of the presidency. He confided to a friend after losing in 1888 that he did not want to be reelected without -- as some had urged -- letting the public know where he stood on the tariff question. "Perhaps I made a mistake, from the party standpoint," he said, "but, damn it, it was right."
Speaking to a gathering of students at the University of Michigan, Cleveland distilled his philosophy of government:
Interest yourself in public affairs as a duty of citizenship, but do not surrender your faith to those who discredit and debase politics by scoffing at sentiment and principle, and whose political activity consists in attempts to gain popular support by cunning devices and shrewd manipulation.
This remains good advice for anyone following the machinations that have been going on in Florida weeks after Election Day.
Alvin S. Felzenberg, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, writes, comments, and lectures on the American presidency.