Grover Cleveland is an impressive figure: the only Democrat to be voted into office between Buchanan and Wilson, he won the popular vote three times in a row, in the elections of 1884, ’88, and ’92. The vagaries of the electoral college deprived him of the presidency in ’88, and as a consequence he is the only American President to have served two non-consecutive terms (and the reason why Obama’s presidency is the 44th but he is the 43rd President). A man of firm morals and strong convictions, Cleveland was frequently unafraid to go against his party’s wishes and he left office reviled, only to see a reversal in his reputation which led to calls in 1904 for him to run against Teddy Roosevelt (he ignored these calls). When he died in 1907, Cleveland’s reputation was secure as one of the greater American presidents.
And then time passed. And Cleveland’s reputation slid, dwindling into a collection of trivia about him being alone in getting married in the White House, and having executed men carrying out his duties as a sheriff in Eerie County. While many of the men I have been reading about have deservedly limited reputations (although none deserve to be forgotten), Cleveland feels like a man who should be remembered. And, Lincoln aside, he was probably the best president of the latter half of the nineteenth century.
While Hayes and Arthur committed themselves to civil service reform, Cleveland insisted on it. It’s easy to see this as an extension of a trend already in existence, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of the civil service at the time was Republican. The spoils system had brought party loyalists into well-paying jobs and Hayes and Arthur’s commitment was effectively to not changing that state of affairs all that much. So while some people who were personally significant to those men were left without lucrative positions, the Republicans were well-represented. Cleveland had to fight off massive pressure from the Democrats to install more party members in jobs. And he did so with a no-nonsense approach and a determined attachment to a merit-based system. That is admirable. He doggedly stuck to the gold standard which, at the time, was a far better option than the silver and gold mix preferred by many in the party. And Cleveland handled the tariff issue reasonably well, although it seems there as if there was no way to win on that matter.
I suspect Cleveland’s dwindling reputation comes from two areas: labour disputes at the time were handled pretty poorly and were an inflammatory issue; and the areas that he was good in are simply not very interesting. Cleveland was an excellent helmsman at a time when the political sea was pretty placid. So Alyn Brodsky’s thesis in his biography makes sense: that Cleveland “remains America’s most underrated President”. Although I dislike such broad statements (how can one analyse that statement meaningfully?), I did agree with his analysis of Cleveland’s character and the significance of his actions. Brodsky’s knowledge of the man was excellent and I was left admiring what Cleveland had achieved.
One gem in this biography is its style. Brodsky writes in a conversational manner and the book reads almost like an extended conversation. He can be a little wordy, and every now and then comes across as indulging in his extensive vocabulary, rather than trying to communicate clearly, but there are so many moments of levity or opinionated commentary that I found the reading experience pleasurable. I particularly enjoyed Brodsky’s willingness to share his political and social views. Some examples would be illustrative.
On missionaries to Hawaii:
[…] they came to convert, not exploit. It was left to their sons and grandsons to show how man will do just about anything in the name of Christianity except practice it.
On appointing justices:
Fuller’s appointment to the high court was a laudable one—which is more than can be said for some made by a number of successive Presidents down to our own time who have sent to the Court men so ill suited for the position that the very act of nominating them would seem to constitute criminal intent.
And on the moral virtues of some modern Presidents:
To compare Grover Cleveland with our four most deplorable post-Harding Presidents—Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton—is to contrast a paradigm of virtue with the quintessence of duplicity. The fact that these men lied blatantly to the public about their historically demonstrable roles in a multiplicity of scandals is doubtless the least reprehensible aspect of their appalling behavior as men and as Presidents.
Cleveland impressed me and Brodsky entertained me. I can’t ask more of a biography.