The ‘improbable’ presidency of Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland was the “self-made, scrupulously honest” person Americans say they want in a president. So why isn’t he better remembered? 

Library of Congress/AP/File
Grover Cleveland in 1888, the year he was inaugurated President of the United States.

When President William Howard Taft took the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1909 for a memorial service honoring the late President Grover Cleveland, he prefaced his guarded praise with plenty of qualifications. 

Cleveland had been a great president, he said, “not because he was a great lawyer, not because he was a brilliant orator, not because he was a statesman of profound learning, but because ...” and so on. The message was clear: Cleveland had been a great president despite everything. 

Former White House speechwriter Troy Senik strikes a similar note with his terrific book “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland,” ticking off all the ways that Cleveland did not rate as president, while still maintaining that he was great. 

“He was not a master strategist like Lincoln, a frenzied crusader like Theodore Roosevelt, or a philosopher-king like Thomas Jefferson,” Senik writes. “He was, in many ways, ordinary. And that was where his greatness resided.” 

Anyone who is not a speechwriter would recognize that greatness and ordinariness are opposites. But Senik sees what Taft saw a century before him: If you don’t take that tactic with Cleveland, you’ll have few other tactics available. 

Cleveland, who had been “a workaholic bachelor lawyer” during his New York law practice and in his pre-presidency public career, came to the White House in 1885 after running on a ticket of scrupulous honesty. “At a time when Democratic Party politics was still heavily influenced by New York’s infamous Tammany Hall political machine,” Senik writes, “Cleveland ran – and governed – in opposition to corruption in all its forms.” 

He failed to gain reelection in 1888 (although he won the popular vote) but returned to the White House in 1893, making him the only president to date to win nonconsecutive terms in office. The fact that this distinction could again be in play for the 2024 election surely adds some juice to the timing of Senik’s book.

"A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland," by Troy Senik, Threshold Editions, 384 pp.

Senik does a succinct but satisfying job of detailing the highlights of Cleveland’s two terms, from his marriage (in office, in the White House, at age 49, to his former ward, who was 21) to the birth of his first child (also in the White House, which hasn’t happened since) – and also the challenges, which were many. Cleveland faced the grave financial panic of 1893 and the resulting Pullman Strike, which gained national dimensions, Senik points out, when it was enlarged by labor leader Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union. 

Cleveland eventually decided to send in U.S. Army troops against the strikers, knowing full well that the event would likely define his presidency. (“I woke up one morning and as I got out of bed,” Senik has him thinking, “I asked myself: Did the people elect Eugene Debs or Grover Cleveland president? And that settled it.”)

Cleveland as president was, as Senik diplomatically puts it, “exceedingly stubborn,” and he stuck to as non-interventionist an interpretation of the presidency as he could, even if this hurt his own image. He constantly refused to sign legislation aimed at providing pensions for veterans, for instance – indeed, he vetoed more bills in his first term than any president in history, a total of 414. 

“The fervor with which Cleveland rejected legislation,” Senik quips, “was less the act of a counterrevolutionary than of an especially irritable auditor.” 

And through it all, Senik insists, he maintained a level of personal probity that we should all appreciate. “Grover Cleveland was precisely the kind of self-made, scrupulously honest man that Americans often say they want as their president,” he writes. “We had him for eight years. And, somehow, we forgot him.” 

Senik’s book is the latest in a string of efforts to change that. Allan Nevins won a Pulitzer Prize for his ponderous but definitive 1932 biography of Cleveland. Rexford Guy Tugwell did a more spirited full-dress job in 1968, and Alyn Brodsky tried it again in 2000. 

“A Man of Iron” is better than all of these – smarter, more comprehensive, faster-paced, and above all funnier in exactly the kind of sly, underhanded way that best fits its subject. Senik seems completely aware of the doomed nature of his endeavor – Americans will never remember Grover Cleveland as a great president – and he goes at it with the punchy happiness of an optimistic underdog. Readers won’t be convinced, but they’ll certainly enjoy the attempt.

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