Tamworth’s Grover Cleveland Could Teach Modern Politicians a Thing or Two
When this story originally appeared in the Mountain Ear, its intro stated, "As the nation celebrates the beginning of the Clinton administration this week, we take a look back at the politics and character of President Grover Cleveland, who summered in Tamworth."
“On March 4, 1885, the sun rose in Washington upon a city crowded in anticipation of a momentous event—the return of the Democratic party to power for the first time since James Buchanan had quit the White House. At noon, Grover Cleveland was to become the twenty-second President of the United States. It was a day as bright as the hopes of the party that he led.”
--from “Grover Cleveland, A Study in Courage” by Allan Nevins
As William Jefferson Clinton embarks on his first term as President of the United States, political pundits are comparing him to the likes of fellow Democrats Jimmy Carter and John Kennedy. They’re even going as far back as Woodrow Wilson’s term to make comparisons.
Well, while looking back to find direction for the future, there’s another Democrat who took office exactly 100 years ago (and also 108 years ago) who might serve as an even better model for our new president as he faces the challenges of the highest office in the land.
(Stephen) Grover Cleveland, born March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, N.J., served as president from 1885 to 1889 and again from 1893 to 1897, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Although his presidency may seem like quite a long time ago, in the case of Cleveland, it’s really only a generation away. His youngest of five children, Francis Cleveland**, born when the former president was 66, still lives in Tamworth near the family estate where Cleveland summered during the last four years of his life.
One of President Cleveland’s many grandchildren, WMWV radio personality George Cleveland, also lives in the area and just turned 40 this year. “Both my grandfather and father married much younger women later in their lives,” said George, in explanation of this remarkable generational spread.
Francis, Cleveland’s only surviving child, is being honored at this year’s inauguration by New Hampshire representative, Democrat Dick Swett. As he is approaching his 90th birthday this summer, Francis has the unique distinction of being the oldest living offspring of a president. Nephew George, son of Francis’ older brother Richard, is attending the Clinton inauguration in his uncle’s place.
Francis was almost a guest on the “Geraldo” television show last year. No, he wasn’t asked to appear because of his many years as director and chief creative mind behind the Barnstormers Theatre in Tamworth, as one might think. Francis was asked because the theme of the show was “Love Lives of the Presidents.”
“I declined,” Francis said. Part of the reason was because he doesn’t like to travel and the other part was, although he had never heard of the “Geraldo” show himself, friends advised him that it was not the type of show he would like.
But, wait. What would Francis have to say about his illustrious father if he had appeared? Surely the president whose dying words, according to Francis, were reported to be “I’ve always tried to do right,” wasn’t involved in scandals like the Gennifer Flowers and Bill Clinton accusations, the Donna Rice/Gary Hart affair, or the innumerable John F. Kennedy and whomever liaisons.
Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and even Grover Cleveland, who was described by Nevins, his Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, as “…a leader of unyielding courage and rocklike principle…” had his “skeletons” in the closet---an illegitimate child, avoidance of military service, and rumors of being a wife-beater (the latter was just that, unsubstantiated rumors).
The wife beating charges notwithstanding, the parallels with Clinton are many. Cleveland came from humble beginnings and worked hard for everything he got. He was also a governor before he assumed the nation’s highest elective office, although only for two years previous to becoming president and for a northern state, New York. Republicans had been in power for 24 years—since before the Civil War—when Cleveland took office. Prior to Clinton’s presidency, Republicans ruled for 12 years. Clinton is 46 years old; Cleveland was 47 when he began his first term.
We’ve all heard of Clinton’s avoidance of the draft and his anti-war leanings and the resultant character issues raised by his opponent, former President George Bush. Although 24 at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, Cleveland also did not serve in the military and went on to win his two elections, amazingly enough almost completely on the strength of his character.
“Father had not served in the war, but his brothers did,” said Francis, explaining that his father, though a self-educated and still struggling young lawyer, was the sole support at the time for his widowed mother and the children she still had at home.
Just imagine what the media would do today with the fact that Cleveland paid an “illiterate Pole of 32 named George Benninsky” $150, according to Nevins, to serve in his place. Despite being a common practice in those days for those who could afford it, it did not go unnoticed even during Cleveland’s era. Nevins reported that “sensational newspaper stories were printed detailing the wounds and hardships his substitute had suffered,” when the truth was that Benninsky was never in any important battle as a combatant.
As we mentioned before, Clinton had his Gennifer Flowers debacle that almost brought down his candidacy. Well, Cleveland also had a “connection” with a Maria Halpin, which almost accomplished the same with his.
As his son relates the family’s version of the well known story of Cleveland’s illegitimate son, Cleveland could well have been the father, but the Halpin woman was known to “get around” and when her son was born in 1874, no one was certain who exactly the father was.
“Father accepted responsibility because the other men involved were married and he was still single,” said Cleveland, adding, “but I do think he was the father.”
When this information broke in the press (It allegedly was leaked by Republican party leaders—sound familiar?), a Democratic campaign worker and friend of Cleveland’s urgently wrote him asking what to do. Cleveland’s answer became famous: “Tell the truth.” Clearly a man ahead of his time.
His biographer offered this analysis: “Had this scandal been brought out during the Chicago convention, it would doubtless have prevented Cleveland’s nomination; had it been brought out the last fortnight of the campaign, it would doubtless have defeated his election, But, appearing when it did, it soon fell in its proper proportions. It was evident that the real issue was the public integrity and capacity of the two candidates, and that old questions of private conduct were essentially irrelevant.”
Cleveland’s opponent in the 1884 presidential race was James G. Blaine of Portland, Maine, a symbol of the status quo in the government at that time. “Men were in revolt against the entire system of government by special favor…” wrote Nevins in the Cleveland biography. “They knew … his [Blaine’s] election would give new encouragement to the crew of lobbyists, spoilsmen, and seekers after privilege. They wanted an honest man…”
An independent leader who swung his followers to Cleveland summed up the general opinion about the scandal surrounding Cleveland: “We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity, but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn.”
Another comment on the issue was even more to the point: “Which was better for the Presidency? A man who, like Cromwell, Franklin, Hamilton, and Webster, had been unchaste, or a man who had sold his official influence for money, and had broken his word in order to destroy documentary evidence of his corruption?”
The people in 1884 decided for the unchaste, but honest, Cleveland. He faced problems such as “cities where wealth and luxury jostled with poverty and wretchedness” (like today); “long-suffering farmers who were revolting against the impoverishment of rural sections” (we’ve got that, too); and “classes forming comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor” (tell me about it).
Cleveland came into office owning no political debts of gratitude. Even when he faced political doom if he didn’t acquiesce to the demands of powerful lobbyists, Cleveland always answered, “no promises.”
“He was known for his almost stubborn honesty,” said his son, Francis. “He said that public office is a public trust.”
In his first term of office, Cleveland gave the people (and not necessarily the business concerns) what they wanted—a reduction of government. In his own words, as he was preparing to depart the White House after his first bid for reelection failed, Cleveland stated what he considered his greatest accomplishments during his first term: “…administrative reform…a wholesale ventilation and stirring up of all the branches of that service, the lopping off of useless limbs, the removal of dead wood, and such a renewal of activity by the introduction of new blood as the necessities of the service should demand.” Are you listening, President Clinton?
Although he won the popular vote, Cleveland lost his bid for reelection in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, whose subsequent administration was noted for the many tariffs, acts, and bills that passed and were of benefit to special interest groups.
Cleveland enjoyed his private life very much during his four years “off”—he had married his ward, Frances Folsom, 27 years his junior and the daughter of a former law partner of his, while in his first term and they had their first child on Oct. 3, 1891. While Cleveland was known to delight in the “manly” pursuits of fishing and hunting, and in his younger days, of enjoying a night out at a roadhouse, or what would be called a bar today, he was also known for his soft heartedness, sense of humor, and love of children.
He returned to the political scene somewhat reluctantly in 1892, but did so because he could not sit idly by while the country faced a crisis. It was a three-way race and Cleveland won handily, although he did not get a majority of the votes. Some who voted for him were lukewarm in their support, saying that it was “better to elect the devil than to re-elect Harrison.” The Republicans, on the other hand, were handicapped by an uninspiring candidate and the necessity of fighting on the defensive.
Immediately after he took office, Cleveland was faced with the problems of “financial houses still failing, mines and factories closing, unemployment increasing, and money stringency growing”—very similar to the 1990s, don’t you think?
At that time in U.S. history, the problem wasn’t the Savings and Loan bail-outs or the skyrocketing national debt. It was the controversy of whether to have a gold or silver standard for the currency. At that time, due to legislation passed during Republican rule, the government was compelled to accept silver from all its debtors, while it had to pay gold to all its creditors.
Cleveland has gone down in the history books for his courage in standing up to, not only his opponents, but also his fellow party members in defending, “against terrific assaults” the country’s sound financial system by saving the country from abandoning the gold standard.
Could Grover Cleveland be elected today? His grandson George thinks so (if it were a perfect world), but Francis, a self-described “left-wing” Democrat, says he wouldn’t vote for him because “he was very conservative.”
“My man was Dan Quayle,” said Francis last week with a twinkle in his eye, reminiscent of his father’s sense of humor. “Any man who says, ‘I stand behind every misstatement I ever made,’ should be president.”
“There’d certainly be no jogging to McDonald’s,” said George, noting that his grandfather, who was continually described as corpulent, had a waist measurement of 60 inches. “Back then, he looked the way presidents were supposed to look.”
All of the Clevelands look back with pride on the accomplishments of their ancestor while in office.
“It’s tough because it was so long ago,” said George, “but I feel a connection to the historical stream because of it.”
In his biography of Cleveland, published in 1932, Nevins said it well:
“He had the good fortune of fitting the needs of his generation with a completeness that is true of few of our political leaders. He came upon the national stage at a moment when the country desperately needed some strong figure to rally and lead the forces of liberalism—the simple basic liberalism expressed in honesty, economy, and efficient government service; and he performed the task…well… He left to subsequent generations an example of the courage that never yields an inch in the cause of truth, and that never surrenders an iota of principle to expediency.”
NOTE: Francis Grover Cleveland, an actor, producer, and director in summer stock as well as the nation's senior Presidential offspring at the time, died in 1995 at age 92.