Grover Cleveland -- all 250 pounds of him.
|In recent years, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon learned that the best way for an unpopular president to become respected is to be ex-president for a while.
But perhaps no chief executive restored his reputation better than Grover Cleveland, who died in 1908 after a topsy-turvy career that took him from political unknown to failure to distinguished statesman.
Cleveland made enemies as a president. He was gruff. He was stubborn. A friend described his essential quality as "you-be-damnedness." In his second term, he presided over the worst economic downturn America had ever suffered before the Great Depression, and he was repudiated by his own Democratic party.
But upon leaving the White House, he made an excellent career move: He chose Princeton as his retirement home.
For 11 post-presidential years, Cleveland lived quietly in a house a few blocks from the Princeton University campus, occasionally trudging outside to go fishing in the Millstone River, deliver a lecture or watch a Tigers football game.
We never did anything flashy in Princeton, but then, he never really did anything flashy in his life at's what people came to like about him, and that's how he eventually came to regain the public's respect.
"Like other presidents whose image improved after they left office, Cleveland's reputation slowly came back," said James McPherson, Princeton history professor and a Pulitzer Prizewinning author on Civil War and Reconstruction history.
"He always had an image of thorough respectability an probity, and these positive attributes tend to be remembered after all the political controversies have died away."
Indeed, when the 71-year-old ex-president died at home, after a three-month battle with gastrointestinal disease, the nation genuinely mourned.
Cleveland was our only president whose life began and ended in New Jersey. He was born in 1837, the son of a Presbyterian minister in Caldwell, near Newark.
But Cleveland's family moved him to rural, upstate New York when he was just 2, and he spent his young adulthood in Buffalo. Palo. With remarkable speed, he was elected sheriff, mayor, governor of New York and finally captured the Democratic nomination for president in 1884.
He was known as "Grover the Good," a reform candidate who said "no" to the selfish interests, grafters and robber barons who dominated post-Civil War politics. His personal reputation, too, seemed as stolid as his 5-foot-11, 250-pound-plus frame. A bachelor, he routinely worked past midnight reading bills and writing letters.
Yet opponents spread the story that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock with a Buffalo widow -- seemingly enough to destroy him in the era of Victorian morality.
"Ma! Ma! Where's my pa? Gone to the White House! Ha! Ha! Ha!" Republicans chanted with naughty delight.
When his aides desperately asked him what to do about this sensational sex scandal, Cleveland responded with characteristic bluntness. "Tell the truth," he said.
Telling the truth might seem alien to today's politicians, but it worked for Cleveland. The voters forgave him and elected him president.
Once in the White House, Cleveland delighted the nation by marrying one of the most popular and beautiful of First Ladies -- Frances Folsom, who was the daughter of his Buffalo law partner and, at 21, less than half his age.
The Clevelands had five children, two of whom were born in Princeton when Cleveland was retired and in his 60s.
One of those sons, Richard Cleveland, went on to have a son, George Cleveland, who is now a radio disc jockey in Conway, N.H. -- and, incredible as it may seem, is only 46.
The mustachioed George Cleveland bears a strong resemblance to his presidential grandpa despite being far less portly. he re-creates the role of his grandfather at local schools - a role he admits is a challenge.
"Let's face it - Grover Cleveland was no Henny Youngman," George Cleveland said. "He didn't poke fun at himself, he spoke in long-winded, overblown phrases and be seems like something of a stuffed shirt."
"But the fact he took himself so seriously also meant he took his job seriously. He really believed that if you served in public office, you served the public, to the exclusion of everything else."
In fact, President Cleveland's intense belief that "public office is a public trust" led him to speak against a high tariff and veto wasteful pensions for Civil War veterans. These were
unpopular positions, and enabled Republican Benjamin Harrison to defeat him in 1888.
Cleveland came back in 1892, winning the presidency a second time and becoming the only man in history to serve non-consecutive terms.
Still, Cleveland's second term was even rougher than his first. The country plunged into depression and labor unrest. Cleveland doggedly insisted on a conservative fiscal policy, infuriating those who accused him of selling out to rich Wall Street interests. In South Carolina, Senator Ben Tillman won cheers with his promise to "stick a pitchfork in fat Grover's ribs."
Cleveland chose not to run for a third term. If he had, he almost certainly would have been defeated.
Instead, he retired to Princeton. Cleveland had been invited to the university's 250th anniversary celebration in 1896 and fell in love with the place; his friend, Andrew West, was a professor of Latin and later president of the graduate school. It was a natural place for Cleveland's retirement.
He bought a cream-colored, stucco-walled mansion at the corner of Hodge Road and Bayard Lane and named it "Westland" in honor of his friend.
One of the first visitors to Westland brought his dog into the drawing room, which promptly began to lick the expresident's face. As the dog's owner apologized, Cleveland said: "No, let him stay. At least he likes me."
But Cleveland was to find that Princeton did like him. Despite the fact he had never attended a college, he was named a trustee of the university and a pointed a lecturer on public tgoricy, Two of the best seats at the football stadium were reserved for the Clevelands, and it became a custom for Princeton students to serenade the Cleveland home after football victories.
As a trustee, Cleveland was no mere figurehead. He solicited funds from steel millionaire Andrew Carnegie to create Carnegie Lake from the waters of Stony Brook. And in 1902, he joined in the vote appointing a new university president:
Woodrow Wilson. Wilson ended up becoming president of the United States four years after Cleveland's death.
Even out of office, Cleveland was unafraid of courting controversy. While the woman suffrage movement was growing, Cleveland wrote a piece in the Ladies' Home Journal stating: "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote."
Early in 1908, Cleveland fell victim to gastrointestinal disease, complicated by weak kidneys and liver and no doubt by his obesity.
In his illness and old age, he had gradually lost 100 pounds off his once-ample frame. Now, a
shadow of his former self, he went to Lakewood to recuperate. When it became clear that the end was near, he asked to be taken back to Princeton.
Stretched out on a mattress in the back of an automobile, Cleveland did come to
Westland. Misleading bulletins were sent by his doctors saying he would recover. But, the morning of June 24, he died with Frances at his side. His last words were reported as: "I have tried so hard to do right."
All the notables of the time -- President Theodore Roosevelt, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the governors of New York and New Jersey -- came to the funeral. In the Cleveland spirit, it was small, private and simple, with no eulogy.
Frances did not remain a widow for long. In 1913, she married Thomas Preston, a Princeton professor. She aged gracefully, driving around town in a brown station wagon and calmly learning Braille when she learned she would go blind.
Frances died in 1947 and was buried beside her first husband in Princeton Cemetery. Their gravestones leave no hint that they were once first family of the land, and the ex-president's epitaph identifies him as nothing more than "Grover Cleveland."
"His wishes were not to have any honors written on his gravestone, and we have to honor that," George Cleveland said. "Along with being a man of great honesty, he had a lot of humility. He was just a guy serving the public. It sounds hokey, but it's what he believed."
|1908: Gruff old Grover|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|