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5 october 2008
Four years before they were elected to the White House, almost all American Presidents have been highly visible national figures. John McCain, in 2004, was perhaps the best-known Republican Senator; Barack Obama, though still a state senator, gave a positively Bryanesque speech to the '04 Democratic convention that made him a clear potential future nominee. Four years before their election, Bush 43, Clinton, and Carter were all governors active in national party politics. Bush 41 was Vice President; Ronald Reagan was running his second campaign for the Republican nomination. Even the great dark horses had a plausible national presence: Franklin Pierce had served in both houses of Congress and was a general in the U.S.-Mexican War, and James Polk, though he lost the Tennessee state house in 1840, had been Speaker of the House of Representatives. Even the unlikeliest President of all, Zachary Taylor, was a military commander near a volatile frontier. And then there's Grover Cleveland.
In November 1880, Grover Cleveland was not exactly a ward-heeler, but he did some of the things that ward-heelers do. He was a lawyer in a lucrative private practice in Buffalo, New York. He had spent a term as sheriff of Erie County, but the voters hadn't liked him for a second term, or for an earlier run at the post of district attorney. His main avocation was schmoozing around masculine Buffalo nightlife, making sure that the Democratic Party held its own in local politics. He weighed close to 300 pounds, chewed tobacco, was fond of beer, and had fathered an illegitimate child by an unstable woman of the Buffalo demimonde, such as that was. On the shortlist for the 1884 Democratic nomination, if anyone was drawing up such lists after the 1880 defeat of Winfield Scott Hancock, Grover Cleveland would have been no more prominent than any of literally thousands of other party activists in hundreds of American cities.
In 1881, the Democrats, a party almost inextricable from their own networks of corruption, needed a clean candidate to run for mayor of Buffalo. Cleveland excited nobody, but had gathered no mud in his career, either. He won nomination and election, and then the process repeated itself at a higher level. In 1882, the party needed a gubernatorial nominee untainted by the appalling muck of Manhattan's Tammany Hall, and Buffalo is about as far from Tammany as you can get and still be in New York State. Cleveland duly became governor, and then in 1884, the party was faced with the same problem at the national level. Cleveland went on to win three popular-vote contests for President, though he was out of office in 1889-1893 thanks to Electoral College peculiarities that tipped the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison.
In his largely appreciative study for the Times Books American Presidents series, Henry F. Graff cannot point to much that Grover Cleveland accomplished as President. He was a profoundly conservative politician. To say that he lacked the "vision thing" would be a terrific understatement. He was a gold-standard man in a party increasingly addicted to free silver, a low-tariff guy in an age of creative tariff legislation that fueled new industries, a Jeffersonian deficit hawk in an age of inevitable government expansion. It can be difficult to see why anyone ever voted for him. But he was a Northern Democrat acceptable to the Solid South, and when he won his own home state of New York (he lost it in 1888), he could put together an electoral-vote majority.
Graff presents Cleveland as increasingly outdated. He had no concept of executive energy, preferring to veto spending bills and push papers around his desk. He worked very hard (unlike his bankers'-hours predecessor Chet Arthur) but very much in the mode of earlier-19th-century small-Presidency leaders. Graff shows Cleveland sometimes opening the door of the White House to unexpected visitors; he was surely the last President ever to do that. Cleveland adjusted slowly to new technologies and even more slowly to the activist possibilities in the Presidency, those that William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt helped expand beyond Cleveland's dreams.
Cleveland retired to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived an American dream of sorts as an elder statesman, trustee of a great university though he himself was not a college graduate. The tower of the Graduate College at Princeton is named after him, immortalizing in American academic faux-Gothic lines the name of an elbow-bending attorney who rose from the saloons of Buffalo to become head of state. Only in America.
Graff, Henry F. Grover Cleveland. New York: Times Books, 2002.