Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review: Grover Cleveland

An Honest President, a biography by H. Paul Jeffers, is sadly out of print. It deserves to be re-issued.

Grover Cleveland is probably the best president you never heard of. His obscurity is due in part to his name. These days, Grover is a Sesame Street character--nobody with that name could possibly do anything important or significant. Today he's known for factoids: as the only president to serve non-consecutive terms, and also to get married in the White House. The newly minted First Lady, 21-year old Frances, proved to be a popular political asset.

It didn't have to be that way. Born Stephen Grover Cleveland, he was the fifth of nine children of a Presbyterian minister. Distant ancestors lent their name to the city in Ohio. The family moved around as the father changed pulpits, but Stephen (as he was known then) mostly grew up outside of Syracuse, NY. Untalented academically (and also lacking money) he didn't go to college, but instead at age 18 moved to Buffalo and apprenticed himself to a law firm.

A tall, gregarious, friendly man, he enjoyed free time playing cards, drinking beer, and eating sausages at the city's many German pubs. And so he came by his trademark girth, earning the nickname "Big Steve." Only when he decided to enter politics--around age 30--did he start using his middle name. Big mistake.

Beyond his native friendliness, two other traits characterized Cleveland: uncompromising integrity, and a formidable work ethic. These together, along with the good fortune that accompanies any political rise, greased his way to the top. He started as an assistant district attorney for Erie County. His first elective office was Erie County Sheriff, where he served for several years. And then in rapid succession he became Mayor of Buffalo, Governor of New York, and finally President of the United States, elected in 1884. While he won the popular vote in 1888, he lost the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison, before famously reclaiming the White House again in 1892.

Cleveland was the first Democrat president since James Buchanan, who lost to Lincoln in 1860. The Republicans, despite having won the Civil War and abolishing slavery, had squandered their reputation through grotesque corruption. Not that the Democrats were any better--they ran urban machines such as Tammany Hall.

Both parties contained reformist elements that opposed the spoils system. Republican reformists were known as the Mugwumps, led by the youthful Teddy Roosevelt. The Democratic reformers included Grover Cleveland, twenty years Roosevelt's senior. And so Roosevelt and Cleveland became unlikely political allies, beginning in New York while Cleveland was governor and Roosevelt a leader in the state Assembly. It's probably an overstatement to say that Cleveland was Roosevelt's mentor, but they maintained a lifelong alliance and mutual respect, if not always friendship.

Among the prominent causes they both supported was a true civil service. When Cleveland took office the federal government employed about 125,000 employees. Almost all of those served at the discretion of the president. The Democrats--out of office since 1860--wanted to fire all the Republicans and replace them with Democrats. Cleveland was besieged with office seekers--it took up most of his time. He vowed to hire the most competent people for the jobs, regardless of party. Since he was not beholden to the Tammany Hall machine, he could get away with that.

Roosevelt was appointed as a commissioner of civil service under the Harrison administration. When Cleveland returned to the White House, he kept Roosevelt on in that position. At the end of his second term he vetoed the Tenure in Office bill--legislation intended to save the jobs of patronage employees when a new president came in office. As he left office, civil service was well established.

Cleveland strongly opposed the free silver movement, supporting instead a strict gold standard. Free silver granted citizens the right to mint silver coins, and required the government to redeem them for gold coins at below market rates. The effect would have been to empty the US Treasury of gold reserves, and create massive inflation. Farmers liked it because it would have given them more money, which they confused with more wealth. Cleveland understood the true economics, leading a newspaper critic to dub him the "elephantine economist."

Cleveland lobbied for lower tariffs and (relatively) free trade. Tariffs in those days were a major revenue source for the federal government, and couldn't be completely eliminated (as they mostly are today). But Cleveland understood that restricting trade hurt American consumers and American exporters. The gains from additional trade more than outweighed the harm to some companies. This is a battle we are still fighting today.

At the end of his second term, he was confronted by Eugene V. Debs and the Pullman strike. Cleveland was supportive of unions, and felt that workers should be paid more. But he was aghast that the Pullman workers were members of the railway workers union, when in fact they weren't really railway workers. When a relatively small and solvable dispute turned into a massive strike that crippled the entire economy, Cleveland had no choice but to call in the army--the first time since the Civil War. It raised economic and constitutional issues, but at the end his move was very popular with the public.

My Trotskyist friends are correct that (in those days) the proletariat had its hand on the throat of the economy. The advantage of industrial unions was precisely that they maximized that leverage. But the counter-argument is that they made it impossible for the government to compromise. The only option left was to break the union. That's what Cleveland did, not necessarily because he wanted to, but because he had to.

On these four issues--civil service, free silver, tariffs, and strikes--Grover Cleveland was on the side of angels. Or at least that's how it looks to my modern eyes. But hidden in that reservoir of pragmatic, common sense loomed a big problem which Cleveland never imagined. Because the advent of good government, midwifed by Cleveland, led gradually but ineluctably toward a demand for big government.

Cleveland's acolyte, TR, began the charge, starting innocuously enough by rigorously enforcing blue laws as a New York City police commissioner. And then the camel's nose gets under the tent with the otherwise laudable National Park Service. But the real villain--the man who turned Grover's good deeds into a monster--was Teddy's cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Today's Progressive movement is as much a child of Teddy and Franklin as it is of Karl Marx. Good government has begat big government--something that Mr. Cleveland would never have countenanced. I like Mr. Cleveland, but even for him the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.

I really enjoyed Mr. Jeffers' book. The salacious details of Cleveland's personal life are alone worth the read. But it has one postmodern quirk that strikes me as strange. For some reason Mr. Jeffers never reports his subject's birthdate. Never mind--Wikipedia to the rescue: March 18th, 1837.

Further Reading:

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