St. Martin’s Press • 2000 • 496 pages • $35.00
Having just endured vacuousness on a grand scale in the last presidential campaign and eight years of verbal subterfuge and prevarication under Bill Clinton, Americans are in need of an inspiration from their political past. They have it in the person of our principled 22nd and 24th president, Grover Cleveland—brought to life in the past year by not one but two laudatory biographies.
An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H. Paul Jeffers is an entertaining but barebones account of America’s most underrated chief executive. It appeared in early 2000 but was soon eclipsed by Alyn Brodsky’s superbly written and more thoroughly researched Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. In admiration for their subject’s honesty and candor, both authors cite this characteristic Cleveland remark: “What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?”
Both books, appearing as they do in a climate of cynicism about the political process and the caliber of today’s politicians, will surely rekindle an interest in Cleveland. In comparison to him, most recent aspirants for and occupants of America’s highest public office look like rogues and pipsqueaks.
Historians rate Cleveland among the better half of presidents, and some have even labeled him “near-great.” But he didn’t fight a war and he didn’t schmooze and slither his way to political power; nor did he exercise power as if he loved it for its own sake. He did the public’s business honestly and frugally and otherwise left people alone. Historians who are deluded into thinking that “greatness” means expanding the frontiers of the coercive state and throwing America’s weight around the world don’t have much time for titans of limited government like Grover Cleveland.
In many ways, Cleveland was a political freak even for his day. As Brodsky capably explains with numerous vivid examples, he time and again refused to do the politically expedient. The first Democrat in the White House since James Buchanan, he appointed the best people he could find, often earning the wrath of friends and party bigwigs because they didn’t get the nod. As Brodsky puts it, “Here, indeed, was that rarest of political animals: one who believed his ultimate allegiance was to the nation, not to the party.”
Cleveland never lusted for public office but was one of the few presidents who was carried forth on the shoulders of those who admired him for his character. The New York Times, which today endorses charlatans, panderers, and statists routinely, endorsed Cleveland for president in 1884 by declaring three reasons for voting for him: “1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man.” Just three years before, he was a little-known lawyer in Buffalo with a previous stint as a county sheriff under his belt. Between 1881 and his elevation to the presidency, he would be elected mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York—vetoing spendthrift bills and battling corruption.
Cleveland was a big man—tipping the scales at 300 pounds at one point—but he stood firmly for small government. He vetoed more bills than all the previous 21 presidents combined. He did his homework when he tossed out hundreds of fraudulent pension claims tied, however tenuously, to the Civil War. He fought to lower tariffs even though his closest advisers warned him the issue was a political hot potato. He nixed many attempts to raid the treasury for the benefit of special interests, including “charitable” causes like helping drought-stricken farmers in Texas. He even opposed using public money for monuments to honor veterans and other heroes, arguing that such things belong in the realm of private initiative.
In foreign policy, he didn’t see it as the duty of the American government to plant its flag smack in the middle of the affairs of other nations. If it wasn’t clearly spelled out in the Constitution, Cleveland said forget it.
Cleveland had no formal training in economics, and neither does biographer Brodsky, but both in their own ways exhibit the traits of good economists—Cleveland for the way he handled complex issues like the monetary crises of the time, and Brodsky for his understanding that Grover did the right thing. In defense of sound money and the gold standard, the President navigated dangerous waters with perspicacity; in interpreting those actions, the biographer rises to Cleveland’s defense with careful analyses. Brodsky even defends Cleveland’s arrangement with financier J.P. Morgan to shore up the government’s gold reserve—a necessary action usually scorned by historians of greater notoriety but of lesser economic intellect.
What I admire most about Cleveland, and what comes through clearly in Brodsky’s work, is that his “character rather than his mind” informed his presidencies. He wasn’t a Princeton brain like Wilson or a Rhodes Scholar like Clinton, but he drew strength from a reservoir of principled character with which neither Wilson nor Clinton will ever be associated. He favored freedom and limited government because he saw honesty as their antecedents.
After reading Alyn Brodsky’s biography, one wonders if a Grover Cleveland could ever be elected again or, perhaps more important, if Americans will ever again muster the moral courage to shove the pipsqueaks aside and vote for such a man.