January 15, 2013

Grover Cleveland also happened

One of my New Year's resolutions in 2012 was to hit the halfway mark of At Times Dull, which, by finishing An Honest President on December 30, I accomplished. Hurray for me!

In order to do this, you may have noticed that I steamrolled through the 1870s and 80s in the month of December. As such, Cleveland was the 4th president I read about in roughly 6 weeks, and he failed to stand out.

Or rather, the things that stand out about him are the trivial things. He was the first president to use the terms "executive privilege" and "welfare state." He was the second president in a row to be the son of a preacher, and the second president in a row to be fat. He got a woman pregnant when he was a young buck, and that came back to bite him in the campaign (though obviously not that much). He stayed single until after he became president. His wife was 21, the daughter of his late business partner. His was the first wedding in the White House, and his daughter Ruth was the first birth in the White House. The candy bar Baby Ruth was named after her, not the baseball player. He was the second president in a row to have a secret medical condition - a tumor on the roof of his mouth. In the guise of a vacation cruise, his surgeon removed the tumor and part of his jaw while they were on board a yacht. And, of course, he remains the only president ever to have served two non-consecutive terms. He is both the 22nd and 24th president.

(Remember: Because of this, "How many men have been President of the United States?" is always a trick question. Although Barack Obama is the 44th president, he is only the 43rd man to be president.)

He was not a genius, but he was very confident and logical. He climbed the ranks of New York politics because of how unreserved he was in standing up to corruption. As mayor of Buffalo and then Governor of New York, he was known for vetoing anything he knew to be a result of corruption. He believed strongly in the accountability of politicians to their constituents.

In 1880, there hadn't been a Democratic president since James Buchanan, since he and his party were largely blamed for the Civil War. However, in 20 years of power, the Republicans had become more and more open about their corruption and their infighting, so a plain-speaking veto governor was just the image makeover the Democrats needed.

His first term had mostly to do with silver coinage and the tariff, which was gripping reading. He lost re-election to Benjamin Harrison for reasons which Jeffers never made totally clear. The nation was enthralled with him, especially when he married a 21-year-old and had a cute baby, but perhaps found his stubbornness uninspiring.

Harrison's one term as president, however, was a disaster. Residing over the "billion dollar Congress," Harrison and the Republicans managed to spend the gigantic surplus that presidents had been sitting on since the Civil War (wartime tariffs had not been lowered after the war was over).

So then American was like, Cleveland wasn't so bad, and elected him to the term after Harrison's. This one was more eventful, because labor exploded. Namely, the Pullman Strike happened on Cleveland's second term watch, which he shut down with federal troops because mail wasn't being delivered. So that part was pretty interesting.

Other than that, honestly, Cleveland kind of came and went for me. Tariffs, reconstruction, Indians, Central America - these are all plots that continue to move slowly forward, without any one president making a huge impact on their course. Cleveland was a refreshing guy after all the bluff and bluster of the New York Republicans, and I think that was a valuable palliative to Gilded Age politics, but he was no political marvel.

But oh, readers, At Times Dull is getting exciting. The 20th century is on the horizon, and the germs of its themes are starting to show up. Teddy Roosevelt was ubiquitous in this bio, as was Mark Twain. It's nice to be back in recognizable times.


  1. I heard Cleveland peed out his office window. Did the book mention that? Or why he was called the Beast of Buffalo? He was a 19th Century Bill Clinton: a randy slob whose served an uneventful term in office.