Few presidents have presided over such corrupt times as Grover Cleveland did. And few so consistently chose to do the right thing in the face of political pressure. We could use him again. I don’t think he would have let today’s Wall Street off the hook.
From Listen Up, Mr. President:
Though often overlooked, Cleveland is widely regarded by historians as one of our most effective presidents. Following a line of weak chief executives in the late 1800’s, he restored the power and prestige of the office just in time for the 20th Century.
“Cleveland embodied rugged honesty in a corrupt age,” historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote in 2004.
Cleveland had gained a reputation as a reformer for challenging the Tammany Hall political machine in his home state of New York, where he had served as governor and earlier as mayor of Buffalo.
Reform-minded Republicans, who were called Mugwumps, backed Cleveland and helped him become the first Democrat in the White House since the Civil War, ending the GOP’s 24-year dominance that had begun with Abraham Lincoln.
Cleveland moved quickly to clean up Washington. First, he stunned and infuriated the city’s powerful interests by shunning their cozy system of spoils for political friends. By his time, the ranks of government jobs filled by presidents had swelled to an all-time high, and these posts were generally given as rewards to their supporters without any regard for their qualifications.
“Officeholders are the agents of the people, not their masters,” Cleveland said.
Our 22nd president unleashed a whirlwind of change throughout government and commerce, leading a modern-day historian, Henry Graff, to conclude in his 2002 biography of Cleveland that he was “our best unknown president.”
Cleveland forced America’s railroad barons to return 81 million western acres previously granted by the federal government and regulated them with the Interstate Commerce Act. The rights of way for railroad land would be returned to the public, Cleveland announced, because the companies were not extending the lines as promised and instead reaping profits from land speculation.
Business interests accustomed to pillaging the federal treasury with questionable deals saw their contracts canceled by Cleveland’s administration. For instance, as part of his drive to modernize the Navy, Cleveland got tough on construction firms that had been building inferior ships, putting several out of business.
Doing the right thing came at a cost, however. He lost the Electoral College vote in his reelection bid despite winning the popular vote. But he returned to the White House four years later, making him the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Since Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th President, he is featured on two separate dollar coins.
Many presidents take office vowing to clean up Washington. But few actually kept their promise as well as Cleveland did.