A Tale of Two Presidents

A version of this article first appeared in Investor’s Business Daily on January 29, 1998.

Presidential history is a keen personal interest of Bill Clinton, a man who is himself making history in ways he undoubtedly now wishes he weren’t. At a recent prep session for the State of the Union address, Clinton reportedly waxed eloquent about the great underappreciated chief executives of the past. He cited Grover Cleveland as one of his favorites, a man in whom Clinton sees a parallel with himself: a president who, like Rodney Dangerfield, never got the respect he deserved.

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Cleveland was a Democrat, and so is Bill Clinton. But that’s where the similarity both begins and ends. Nothing makes that plainer than the contrasting way in which the former handled the sex scandal that almost sank his political career and the way in which the latter is dealing with the one that currently threatens his.

Grover Cleveland was elected mayor of Buffalo, New York, in 1881 on a platform of honesty, candor, integrity and economy. His kept promises and spotless record catapaulted him into the New York governorship in 1882, where his crusade for lean and clean government earned him the Democratic Party’s nomination for president just two years later. With the campaign against Republican James G. Blaine barely underway, the country was rocked with the charge that Cleveland had once had an affair with a department store clerk in Buffalo, and that an illegitimate son was the result.

This was the Victorian age, a time when the sort of sexual or financial improprieties that Americans cynically dismiss today as trivial were enough to consign a politician to oblivion, posthaste. In 1884, character actually mattered to most people. The nation demanded and expected an honest answer from Cleveland, and that’s precisely what it got. As recounted in Allan Nevins’ Pulitizer Prize-winning biography, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, the Democratic governor wasted little time in telling his friends and advisors how to deal with the firestorm. With no hesitation, legalisms, or evasions, he simply said, "Tell the truth."

The truth was this: In the early 1870s as a young Buffalo lawyer, Cleveland befriended Maria Halpin. He was, in fact, one of several gentlemen who found Maria interesting and attractive. In 1874, she revealed that she was pregnant and claimed that Grover was the father. All her other male friends were married with families of their own, and it isn’t clear whether Maria really believed the bachelor Grover was responsible or was just naming the man most likely to confess and marry her.

Cleveland did marry, but not until 1886, and he married the woman he loved—Frances Folsom, not Maria Halpin. A son by that marriage lived until October 1995 and he told me in a conversation at his New Hampshire home two months before his death that his father never believed Maria Halpin’s child was his. Nonetheless, Grover accepted financial responsibility for both Maria and the child and even took legal action on the child’s behalf once, when it became apparent that Maria was abusive.

Biographer Nevins quotes the Rev. Kinsley Twining, a prominent Cleveland contemporary and defender: "After the preliminary offence . . . his conduct was singularly honorable, showing no attempt to evade responsibility, and doing all that he could to meet the duties involved, of which marriage was certainly not one."

The Republican nominee, Blaine, thought he had the 1884 campaign won when the Halpin scandal stories began appearing. "Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha" became the familiar, taunting refrain at GOP rallies. But Blaine underestimated the power of Cleveland’s honest character. "Tell the truth" resonated more with Americans than any of Blaine’s barbs because that’s exactly what Cleveland did—with no ifs, ands or buts about it. There was never even a hint of a cover-up and no attempt to impugn Maria Halpin or anyone else. Cleveland won the election in November.

By contrast, Bill Clinton’s motto seems to be, "Tell whatever gets us through this thing." When confronted with accusations of an affair with Gennifer Flowers in 1992, he looked Americans in the eye and unequivocally denied the charges. But in a tape recorded conversation, he had earlier advised Flowers to deny the charges too and in a deposition in the Paula Jones case two weeks ago, he reportedly admitted that he did indeed have an affair with Flowers. With evidence mounting against him in the Lewinsky matter, it seems he cannot bring himself to come clean.

That Clinton would see himself in the Cleveland mold is strange for reasons beyond the issue of personal character. Cleveland, a staunch enemy of bloated government, vetoed more bills than all the previous 21 presidents combined. Clinton has offered us expanded federal programs from midnight basketball to billions for an Asian bailout. Cleveland cut taxes, Clinton raised them.

Cleveland repeatedly warned the nation against weakening "the sturdiness of our national character" through "paternal care on the part of the Government." He once vetoed a bill that would have appropriated $10,000 for drought-stricken farmers in Texas, declaring that "though the people support the government the Government should not support the people." Clinton tried to nationalize one-seventh of the nation’s economy with a health care scheme riddled with mandates, controls and bureaucracy. It’s hard to imagine two presidents more dissimilar, a sad commentary on how far the country’s leadership has eroded since the days of Grover Cleveland.

Of Cleveland, the ascerbic commentator H. L. Mencken once wrote an essay which he entitled, "A Good Man in a Bad Trade." If Mencken were writing of Bill Clinton today, he might well title his essay, "A Bad Man in a Trade He May Have Made Even Worse."