When Grover Cleveland ran for president in 1884, he was endorsed by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which listed four reasons for encouraging its readers to send Cleveland to the White House:
“1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man. 4. He is an honest man.”
As a prominent Democratic newspaper, the World’s support for Cleveland, the Democratic nominee, was to be expected. But such insistent praise for a candidate’s truthfulness and honor was as remarkable then as it would be now — voters in the Gilded Age, like voters in the Digital Age, had ample grounds to regard “honest politician” as a contradiction in terms.
Applied to Cleveland, however, it was the unadorned truth. He was known above all for his integrity, and rarely has the power of such a reputation propelled a political figure so far, so fast. In 1882, he had taken office as the newly elected mayor of Buffalo and promptly declared war on a ring of crooked city aldermen who were taking kickbacks on inflated public contracts. The new mayor, derailing one such contract, flayed the council members who had approved it for their “barefaced, impudent, and shameless scheme to betray the interests of the people.” Cleveland’s refusal to turn a blind eye to graft drew notice well beyond the city’s limits. Less than a year into his term as mayor, he became the Democratic candidate for governor of New York and went on to win the office in a landslide.
As governor, Cleveland battled constantly with Tammany Hall, the infamous New York City political machine, which controlled votes and manipulated elections through fraud, patronage, and intimidation. Unintimidated by Tammany’s clout, Cleveland fired corrupt officials linked to the machine, vetoed pork-barrel bills, and publicly inveighed against the political spoils system. Once again his implacable honesty made him a hero to voters hungry for better government. Hardly had Cleveland gotten used to being governor when reform Democrats began talking about him as presidential material.
At the party’s national convention in Chicago, Cleveland’s name was formally placed in nomination by a delegate who praised the governor for “his honor, his integrity, his wisdom, and his Democracy.” That was the last thing the Tammany forces wanted, and they maneuvered furiously to block Cleveland’s ascent. In a fiery speech seconding Cleveland’s nomination, Edward Stuyvesant Bragg — a Civil War general and former US Representative — turned Tammany’s enmity into a formidable Cleveland asset. It was true that people admired Cleveland for his honesty, integrity, and strength, Bragg declared. “But they love him most of all for the enemies he has made.”
That sent the convention into a paroxysm of adoration and cheers. Tammany’s obstructionist efforts came to naught. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to make Cleveland their standard-bearer, setting up a contest between a rough-hewn Democrat who had never even seen the nation’s capital and a dapper Republican — former House Speaker, Senator, and Secretary of State James G. Blaine of Maine — who was the very epitome of an entrenched Washington insider.
Not since George Washington had a candidate for president been so renowned for his rectitude. “Grover the good,” his supporters dubbed him. Not surprisingly, Republicans were elated when the Buffalo Evening Telegraph, an anti-Cleveland newspaper, printed a blockbuster story accusing the unmarried Cleveland of having seduced a young widow and fathered a child out of wedlock. It wasn’t the first sex scandal in American political history; it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But it may be the only one that ever enhanced a politician’s reputation for candor. As the story exploded in headlines nationwide, Cleveland’s frantic allies asked how Democrats should respond. The governor, who acknowledged the affair and had contributed to the child’s support, responded in a telegram: “Whatever you do, tell the truth.”
Voters were impressed. Cleveland won the election, the first Democrat to be chosen president since James Buchanan in 1856, and the last until Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
The remarkable Cleveland is generally remembered by Americans today, when they remember him at all, as the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms — he lost his bid for reelection in 1888 (despite winning a majority of the popular vote), but he ran again successfully in 1892. What he should be remembered for is his monumental incorruptibility and commitment to ethical government. As he had in Buffalo and in Albany, Cleveland brought with him to Washington the ardent conviction that “a public office is a public trust,” and that it was never appropriate for government to dole out favors at taxpayers’ expense, no matter how politically expedient.
He was never paralyzed by the fear of saying “no.” In his first term alone, Cleveland vetoed 414 bills, more than double the total of all the presidents who preceded him. Over his eight years in the White House, Cleveland rejected an astonishing 584 bills passed by Congress. That many of those measures were popular feel-good measures, such as authorizations for specious veterans’ pensions, makes Cleveland’s fortitude all the more impressive. Only 1 percent of his vetoes were overridden — a testament to the power of ethical principle to withstand the political appetite for spending other people’s money.
Some presidents never met a principle they wouldn’t abandon for electoral gain. Cleveland, principled to the bone, was of a different breed.
“He was not averse to popularity, but he put it far below the approval of conscience,” H. L. Mencken wrote of Cleveland long after he left the White House. “It is not likely that we shall see his like again, at least in the present age. The presidency is now closed to the kind of character that he had so abundantly.”
On this Presidents Day, could anything be more dispiriting?
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.