What Donald Trump Can Learn From Grover Cleveland

The only president to lose and then come back, the 24th president has lessons for the 45th.

Now that Donald Trump’s electoral defeat seems assured, rumors are circulating that he’ll run in 2024 and declare as early as Inauguration Day. And some are already comparing him to Grover Cleveland, the only president to reclaim the office after losing it.

But I know a little something about Grover Cleveland. And Donald Trump, you’re no Grover Cleveland.

Yes, there are parallels. They both grew up in New York: Trump in Queens and Cleveland in upstate Oneida County. Each man married a woman more than 20 years his junior. And as recent accounts have reminded us, both presidents were caught up in tabloid-worthy sex scandals.

Yet it’s the differences between the scandals—not the similarities—that teach us the most about the two presidents. Clearly, Cleveland was a man of character. And, just as clearly, Trump is not.

In July 1884, newspapers reported that Cleveland—the Democratic candidate for president, and still a bachelor—had fathered a son with a widow named Maria Halpin. Cleveland didn’t make any public statement about the matter, but he gave his aides a simple instruction: “Above all, tell the truth.” They discretely informed newspapers that Cleveland was paying to support the boy.

Gleeful Republicans exploited the scandal, parading behind baby carriages and chanting, “Ma? Ma? Where’s my Pa?” But Democrats would get the last laugh, retorting, “He’s gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha” after Cleveland defeated GOP candidate James Blaine in November.

Blaine was dogged by charges that he had taken bribes from railroad companies when he was Speaker of the House. By contrast, Cleveland’s efforts to battle corruption as governor of New York had earned him the nickname “Grover the Good.” In the end, voters trusted Cleveland more. The love-child exposé actually might have helped him, despite the era’s stricter sexual mores, because it underscored his honesty. By contrast, think of John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee who denied paternity of the child born by a woman with whom he was having an affair. Edwards fessed up to the extramarital liaison but, amazingly, convinced a married aide to claim paternity. When the truth came to light, the senator, once lauded for his silver tongue, was ruined.

Even in the Victorian era, meanwhile, some people questioned whether Cleveland’s transgression lay beyond the moral pale. “To see grown men, apparently in their right mind, seriously arguing against a bachelor’s fitness for President, because he has had private intercourse with a consenting widow!” exclaimed a bemused Mark Twain, who abandoned his Republican roots to vote for Cleveland.

By contrast, Trump has been accused of unwanted sexual conduct—including verbal harassment, groping, and rape—by no fewer than 26 women since the 1970s. In the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape that surfaced during the 2016 elections, he boasted about grabbing women by their private parts. He later apologized for his crude language, which he wrote off as “locker-room talk.” But he has not apologized to any of his alleged victims, instead dismissing them as gold-diggers and liars.

Trump had to contend with even more revelations about his treatment of women after the campaign. There was his affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who received $130,000 from his attorney Michael Cohen to keep quiet about it. At first, Trump denied knowing anything about the hush money. But after it came to light, he said he had reimbursed Cohen for it. Whether the money was a campaign-related expenditure or a husband covering up his infidelity became an important legal distinction that’s still being litigated.

Here, too, the contrast to Grover Cleveland couldn’t be sharper. Yes, Cleveland made secret payments to care for the son he fathered. But when they were exposed, he didn’t try to deny them or spin them.

Cleveland was, of course, doing the right thing by providing child support, which was a tacit acknowledgment of responsibility for his actions. That’s something that has always eluded Trump, who has exactly one strategy when faced with any charge: blame the accuser. And never, ever admit any fault himself.

Grover Cleveland raised eyebrows again in 1886 when the 48-year-old president married Frances Folsom—who was just 21–in a White House ceremony. (The Donald-Melania gap is 24 years.) But the poised new first lady quickly proved herself to be a political asset for her taciturn husband, holding two receptions a week and sometimes greeting as many as 8,000 people at once.

And it was Frances who predicted that her husband Grover would return after he narrowly lost his re-election bid to Benjamin Harrison in 1888. (Like Trump in 2016, Harrison received fewer popular votes but prevailed in the Electoral College.) “I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again,” Frances told the White House staff.

Harrison’s own wife fell gravely ill during his presidency, which prevented him from actively campaigning for re-election. Cleveland won their 1892 rematch, as Frances had foreseen. Leaving their home off Fifth Avenue in New York, the Clevelands made a triumphal return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Could Trump come back, as well? Part of the answer will depend on the multiple criminal and civil cases against him, including several lawsuits by victims who say he sexually assaulted them. All of the charges of sexual misconduct did not prevent him from winning 47 percent of the vote last month. But even if Trump follows Grover Cleveland’s footsteps back to the White House, taking the same route from Fifth Avenue to the president’s residence, he’ll never be the man Cleveland was. We know that much already.

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press.