Monday, January 09, 2017

Anti-Presidents Day: Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland persists in our popular memory as a bundle of colorful details. He became president in spite of a sex scandal, winning as the candidate of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (a slogan that hurt his Republican opponent worse than Cleveland); served two non-consecutive terms as president, losing the office in 1888 despite winning the popular vote; and in his final term survived a secret operation to remove a mouth tumor. It would be nice to say that Cleveland, like his predecessor Chester Arthur, left behind a record of presidential accomplishments that merited his recovery from obscurity. Alas, in office the 22nd/24th president displayed the narrowness of vision and lack of creativity so typical of the White House’s denizens. Seeing himself as the heir of Jefferson and Jackson, he favored a small and inactive national government. President Grover opposed higher tariffs, Civil War veterans’ pensions, and federal disaster relief, which he claimed would “weaken the sturdiness of our national character,” and he blocked federal monitoring of Southern elections (which would have benefited black voters). He also supported Big Business in most of its forms. He favored the deflationary gold standard, even during the depression following the Panic of 1893; used federal troops to help crush the Pullman Strike of 1894; and hobnobbed with bankers and other princes of the Gilded Age. Essentially, he governed as a Democratic-Republican, simultaneously promulgating an outdated Jeffersonian vision of governance and quasi-Hamiltonian policies that favored the rich. We could say that he typified an era in which the American electorate evenly divided their votes between Republicans and Democrats. Cleveland tried to appeal to voters from both parties. A trimmer is not a leader, however, nor someone whose presidency benefits large numbers of people. The best one can say about Cleveland is that he wasn’t a total disaster.

Democrats probably wouldn’t even agree with that assessment. GC’s weak response to the Panic of 1893 helped Republicans take control of Congress and recover the presidency. They would not relinquish the White House to a Democrat for another sixteen years.

That Cleveland’s untidy personal life had little bearing on his subsequent political career does bear consideration. In Your Humble Narrator’s youth, politicos and the press believed that one sex scandal or unseemly divorce sufficed to ruin a person’s political ambitions, with Gary Hart and Nelson Rockefeller as Exhibit A. I doubt this was ever really true, and certainly Reagan (divorced) and Clinton (obvious horndog) demonstrated its irrelevance by the last quarter of the twentieth century. What voters dislike far more than an adulterer is a liar, as James Blaine (“Continental Liar from the State of Maine”) discovered in 1884. Cleveland at least acknowledged that he’d fathered a child out of wedlock and paid child support. Good enough, said the voters.

I imagine more Puritanical standards apply to female candidates for high office, American society being what it is. Whether these have any bearing on the election of a female president we will not know for at least another four years.

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