When I was a kid, George Washington was my favorite president. He was the Father of our country, I learned in school. Awesome. Later Abraham Lincoln took his place. Now I am reading The America Presidents by David C. Whitney and have decided that Grove Cleveland is now my favorite. “As Chief Executive, Cleveland brought to the country no unusual theories of government, but he did restore to the presidency much of the prestige eroded by Congress during the Reconstruction Era. Above all, he exemplified honesty, even when it lost him the support of powerful interests in his party.”
As a thirty-three-year-old sheriff of Erie County, New York, Cleveland “made a name for himself as an honest public official, exposing crooked contractors who had been delivering short measures of food and fuel to the county jail. When it came time to hang two convicted murderers, Cleveland sprang the trap himself, explaining that he could not ask his deputies to do a job just because he didn’t want to do it himself.” In 1881 he accepted the nomination to run as a reform candidate for mayor “to clean up corruption in the city government of Buffalo. He won by 15,000 votes to his opponents 11,500 and soon became known as the ‘veto mayor’, turning down one crooked measure after another that had been voted by his corrupt city council.”
When he was later elected as governor of the state, Cleveland continued his clean-up of government corruption. He “read every word of every law passed by the legislature before he would sign or veto it – even if it meant he had to stay up all night to get the job done.”
At the Democratic National Convention of 1884, he won the reputation for his honesty. His campaign title was “Grover the Good”. The campaign got nasty and when it was discovered that he’d fathered a son by a woman he did not marry, he refused to deny it to the chagrin of his party. There were similar charges against his opponent which were denied. In the end Cleveland was elected.
Forgive me for going on and on, but this guy is so refreshing, I got excited reading about him. This is what he spoke at his inaugural address, without notes, on March 4,1885:
“The people demand reform in the administration of the Government and the application of business principles to public affairs. As a means of this end, civil-service reform should be in good faith enforced.Our citizens have the right to protection from the incompetency of public employees who hold their places solely as the reward of partisan service, and from the corrupting influence of those who promise and the vicious methods of those who expect such rewards; and those who worthily seek public employment have the right to insist that merit and competency shall be recognized instead of party subserviency or the surrender of honest political belief.”
Cleveland followed through on his promise to clean up. When Democrats from all over the country descended on Washington expecting to be rewarded with the more than 100,000 jobs that Cleveland had to fill, he called it “a nightmare.” “He refused to remove Republicans from office just because they were Republicans, and insisted that for anyone to be removed from office it was necessary to bring charges of incompetence or corruption.”
In one of his last acts as president, Cleveland’s predecessor, Chester Arthur had opened the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) for settlement. “This would have robbed the Indians of thousands of acres of land they had been promised…Cleveland issued a proclamation canceling the opening of the lands and warning all intruders that whey would be removed by troops if necessary.”
When the new Knights of Labor union demanded higher wages and an eight-hour work day, Cleveland created a commission to settle labor-management disputes. Two years later, he created the Department of Labor. The list goes on. He served two terms that were not consecutive (Benjamin Harrison served in between).
I find myself yearning for this kind of leadership today. I am only on president #22 in my reading and I may be surprised to find other such honest human beings who served in the highest office of our land. But for now, Grover Cleveland is my man.