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A Man of Iron

A Man of Iron

WHEN reading A Man of Iron by Troy Senik that reassesses the life and the improbable presidency of Grover Cleveland, you can’t help but reevaluate your notion of what makes a great leader. It is refreshing to read of a public figure willing to follow principle regardless of the political consequences.

At the age of forty-four, the only elected office Grover Cleveland had ever held was sheriff of Erie County, New York—a role he had relinquished nearly a decade earlier, returning to a rather uneventful life as a workaholic bachelor lawyer. In the next four years, he would become, in rapid succession, the mayor of Buffalo, the governor of New York, and the twenty-second president of the United States. Four years later, he would win the popular vote but nevertheless lose the presidency. And in another four, he’d become the first—and, to date, only—president to be returned to office after having been previously turned out.

❧ The trick to Grover Cleveland was that he could only surprise you if you hadn’t been paying attention. The man in office was precisely the man who had been on the ballot, who was precisely the man who toiled long into the night behind his law desk, who was precisely the kid who showed up at the Eire Canal at 4 a.m. to get a jump on his competition. To the extent he was profound, it was because he was a simple, straight-forward man in a Janus-faced profession. To the extent his conduct was shocking, it was only because he had a habit of doing exactly what he had said he would do.

❧ Scan Grover Cleveland’s entire political career and there is but one principle—always articulated, if not always constantly applied—that shaped all others: government exists to protect the welfare of the people as a whole. And any preference government shows to one individual over another is to be regarded as per se suspicious.

❧ If Grover Cleveland wasn’t a political genius he had an incredible knack for stumbling into situations that made him look like one.

❧ That Cleveland was such a short remove from the unremarkable life of a Buffalo lawyer—combined with the fact that his no-frills personality seemed impenetrable by changes in status—went a long way to explaining the modesty with which he approached the presidential transition. He declined President Arthur’s offer to stay at the White House prior to swearing in, choosing a local hotel instead. He even paid for his own train fare for the journey from Albany to Washington, thinking it unbefitting a president to accept any benefits on account of his station.

❧ On a walk with a Buffalo acquaintance shortly after the election, he declared, “Henceforth, I must have no friends.” The American presidency is often lamented as the loneliest job in the world. For Grover Cleveland that was a necessity to be embraced rather than a tragedy to be endured.

❧ It would be the case from their wedding day forward that Frances—young, big-hearted, and beautiful—was the member of the Cleveland family who truly captivated the public. Not quite twenty-two years old, she had become the youngest First Lady in American history. The effect she had on Washington would be unrivaled until Jacqueline Kennedy’s tenure nearly a century later.

❧ Grover Cleveland died at home on the morning of June 24, 1908. His last recorded words were, “I have tried so hard to do right.”

❧ Mark Twain, a man not known for flattering politicians, declared Cleveland “the greatest and purest American citizen” and “a very great president, a man who not only properly appreciated the dignity of his high office but added to its dignity.”

❧ He possessed moral courage at almost superhuman levels. He was consistently motivated by conviction, even when he knew he’d suffer political harm as a result. As Woodrow Wilson observed, “His courses of action were incalculable to the mere politician, simply because they were not based upon calculation.”

Grover Cleveland

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