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REVIEW: “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland” by Troy Senik

A statue of Grover Cleveland / Wikimedia Commons

Tevi Troy • September 25, 2022 4:59 am

Only 14 men have served two full terms as President of the United States. Of these 14, Grover Cleveland is perhaps the least well known. Which is strange. Our two-term CEOs include some of the most famous presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But all are quite familiar to the general educated reader. Grover Cleveland, on the other hand, belongs to the category of the most forgotten presidents of late 19th century facial hair.

Cleveland is so unknown that it doesn’t have a monument or even a statue in Washington. He deserves an (so far) intact claim to fame: unlike other members of the two-term club, his service has not been consecutive. Cleveland left his first term after a narrow loss to Benjamin Harrison. He then turned around and defeated Harrison in the next election. He returned to the White House, making him one of only three presidents, along with Jackson and Roosevelt, to win the popular vote at least three times. Leaving the White House for the first time, Frances, Cleveland’s wife, said, “We’re not coming back for four years from today.”

Troy Senik’s new biography on Cleveland, A Iron Man, shows that Cleveland is not appreciated. Senik, a former White House speechwriter and conservative thinker, admired Cleveland from an early age, visiting the president’s birthplace when he was 16. Senik has good reason to admire Cleveland, as the book shows. Cleveland had a fascinating history. Born into poverty, he enjoyed one of the most meteoric rises to the presidency, going from mayor of Buffalo to governor of New York to president in a matter of years. Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt, also of New York, is the only president to match Cleveland’s rapid rise. Cleveland also had a sex scandal, fathering a child out of wedlock, but still managed to get elected. And he had a medical scandal, sneaking into the White House to have secret surgery on a cancerous tumor in his mouth. The surgery took place on a boat and the president managed to keep it a secret until years after his death.

Cleveland also dealt with a fascinating set of issues, though issues including tariffs, military pensions and free money may lack resonance today. He was a firm believer in the Constitution and strove to ensure that his actions remained within the bounds of that document. When Congress passed disaster relief for drought-stricken farmers, it vetoed because such action was not constitutionally mandated. He was a workaholic who took work seriously. And he contrasts sharply not only with our current president, who found a way to get the executive to cancel student loans. Unfortunately, Cleveland’s self-discipline and adherence to principles are markedly different from those of most of his successors.

In his most compelling chapter, Senik questions why Cleveland is so little remembered today. One reason is this lack of resonance with the key issues of its time, which makes it difficult to place Cleveland in the context of current political debates. Cleveland also gave boring speeches, some taken from the encyclopedia, in a high-pitched nasal voice. He could also have run for a third term, which would have made us know him better, but chose not to. Later, his long-survived wife Frances – Cleveland died in 1908 – refused to vote for Franklin Roosevelt’s third term in 1940, citing Cleveland’s example to his children: “Your father never approved of a third mandate.” However, when FDR ran again in 1944, she told her children it was fine to support him, saying, “Your father never said anything about a fourth term.” Cleveland also presided over a painful economic depression, which often damages the reputation of the presidents who preside over them.

But the main problem Cleveland faces in its quest for historic recognition is that he was a limited-government conservative who opposed government economic interventions, making him a Democrat from a mold that disappeared with the advent of progressive Woodrow Wilson. Cleveland, as Senik shows, actually recognized Wilson’s potential when Wilson was at Princeton, but then parted ways with him as his presidency moved in a decidedly un-Clevelandian direction.

In this, Cleveland has become an uncomfortable ancestor for today’s Democrats in its loyalty to constitutional limits and its belief in small government. Republicans are unlikely to celebrate a Democrat, it’s unlikely that all Democrats will celebrate that type of Democrat, leaving Cleveland largely out in the cold. Either way, Americans of all stripes should celebrate this patriotic and dedicated public servant who ably led our nation through both difficult and exciting times.

A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Unlikely Presidency of Grover Cleveland
by Troy Senik
Threshold editions, 384 pages, $32.99

Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former White House senior aide. His latest book is Fight House: White House rivalries from Truman to Trump.

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