Grover Cleveland, 22nd president of the U.S., in an undated photo of a painting. His term served was March 4, 1885 to March 3, 1889. (AP Photo)

We are cursed to live in a time when Donald Trump’s grotesque shadow hangs over almost any topic of political or cultural conversation. So if you read Troy Senik’s new biography, A Man of Iron, about the life of Grover Cleveland, you can’t help but try to detect any relevant parallels between the one person who won, then lost, then won the presidency, and the person trying to be the second.  

A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland by Troy Senik Threshold, 383 pp.

Trump, thankfully, is only mentioned in passing, as the president who proposed including Cleveland in a new sculpture garden honoring American heroes, a project scotched by Joe Biden. Senik—formerly a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a vice president at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Public Policy think tank—is wise to leave the distracting former president out of his taut and punchy narrative. How Cleveland—the only Democratic president elected in the post–Civil War 19th century—pulled off the greatest comeback in the history of American presidential politics is a fascinating subject. But it’s not one that offers a model of success for Trump to emulate. The Cleveland story is a morality play, exemplifying how unwavering principle can sustain a politician through difficult times. “Virtually everything worth saying about Grover Cleveland boils down to that one elemental fact: he possessed moral courage at almost superhuman levels,” writes Senik, in a sentence one would never write about Donald Trump. 

Granted, after learning about Cleveland’s first term record—228 penny-pinching vetoes of pension awards to individual Civil War veterans; a tariff reform push that hit a brick wall in the Republican Senate; and an obsessive personal involvement in minor civil service appointments—some readers might conclude that Senik’s praise is excessively effusive. Voters in 1888 were certainly underwhelmed. After his first term, Cleveland irritated wide swaths of the electorate: the powerful Grand Army of the Republic veterans lobby with his vetoes; Democratic job seekers with his commitment to civil service reform; and northerners who detected a bias toward industries from the Democratic South in his party’s kludgy tariff reform bill. Senik acknowledges that Cleveland led with his chin too often to win reelection, though that only contributes to his argument that Cleveland put principle before politics.

Cleveland’s reputation for rectitude did aid his 1892 comeback. After keeping a low profile in his first two years out of office, Cleveland faced a nomination challenge from a fellow New Yorker, the patronage-friendly Tammany Hall–backed Governor-then-Senator David Hill. In late 1891, Hill controversially kept being governor for a few weeks even after the state legislature appointed him to the Senate, raising concerns about his accumulation of power. Then, in full command of the state party, he tried to stack the Democratic National Convention with his delegates by holding the New York state convention in the snowy winter, making it harder for rural backers of Cleveland to attend. However, the scheme was so transparently Machiavellian that it made Cleveland look good in comparison, especially since, as Senik writes, “the intended victim of the plot was a man known for his sense of propriety and fair play.” Cleveland beat Hill in the convention on the first ballot. 

Then in the general election—a rematch against Republican Benjamin Harrison—the political tables turned. Under the Harrison administration, Republicans busted the budget with veteran pensions and raised the price of goods with protectionist tariffs. Cleveland’s stubbornness looked more virtuous, even populist. Senik quotes Harrison’s woeful postelection summation: “The workingman declined to walk under the protective umbrella because it sheltered his employer also. He has smashed it for the fun of seeing the silk stockings take rain.”

Harrison’s analysis captured the rising populism of the Gilded Age that had begun to transform the Democratic Party, a populism that, ironically, the party’s standard-bearer was determined to resist. 

Populist Democrats wanted to move America’s currency off the “gold standard,” in which the value of paper money was tied to the value of gold. As gold is a finite resource, the gold standard limited the availability of money and credit. A modest amount of less precious silver was included in the money supply, thanks to legislation that was enacted in 1878. But that wasn’t enough for the populists, who wanted an unlimited amount of silver. 

Cleveland opposed the nascent “Free Silver” movement in his first term. After his failed reelection bid, his Republican successor in 1890 accepted a compromise between the gold and silver advocates that increased the limit on silver. Once Cleveland began to reemerge publicly after the 1890 midterms, in which Democrats took control of the House and the silver forces gained steam, he issued a statement recommitting to the gold standard, which even his closest aides feared was political suicide. That it wasn’t, to Senik, was proof of his ability to “defy the laws of political gravity” because whatever controversy he sparked was “overtaken by the respect his candor inspired.”

Senik does not let his praise for Cleveland’s character and philosophical bent blind him to Cleveland’s shortcomings as president. His second term began in 1893 with what was deemed at the time to be the “Great Depression.” Cleveland’s response in his first year back in office was not to radically loosen the currency system, but to repeal the 1890 silver bill in hopes of replenishing the nation’s gold reserves. 

The conservative Senik is sympathetic toward Cleveland’s attempted application of classic liberalism. (He describes Cleveland as “the final Democratic president to embrace the classical liberal principles of the party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson … a narrow interpretation of the Constitution, a limited role for the federal government, and a light touch on economic affairs.”) Yet Senik also acknowledges that “the policy didn‘t work” to stabilize the currency, let alone end the panic. Not until 1895, when Cleveland reluctantly turned to J. P. Morgan to bail out the financial system, did the economy start to heal. But such a solution further fueled the populist faction, and put Cleveland further out of step with his own party. By 1896, Cleveland was a spent political force and the party fell in behind the charismatic young populist William Jennings Bryan, who would be nominated for president in three of the next four presidential elections.

Where Senik does betray a blind spot is in his assessment of Cleveland’s personal character. In the 1884 campaign, Cleveland was dogged by allegations that he fathered a child out of wedlock with a Buffalo woman named Maria Halpin, broke a promise to marry her, then used his political connections to have her institutionalized and her baby adopted by another family. In response to the attacks, Cleveland famously instructed his allies, “Whatever you do, tell the truth.” He never denied paternity, though he did not cop to any of the other allegations. 

Near the end of the 1884 campaign, two affidavits from Halpin, signed on October 28 and 29, added the accusation of rape, the latter being the most specific: “While in my rooms he accomplished my ruin by the use of force and violence and without my consent.” The 2011 book A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, by Charles Lachman, argued that the affidavits should be believed. Senik rejects the rape charge completely, however, and notes that Lachman ignored an interview of Halpin published in the November 3, 1884, edition of the Detroit Free Press, which reads, “I have no fault whatever to find with Mr. Cleveland” and “Words have been put into my mouth which I never uttered.” The paper further claimed that the Republican campaign hired people who duped Halpin into signing the affidavits. 

It’s true that Lachman leaves out this important news clip. However, Senik ignores a Chicago Tribune interview of Halpin, published on October 31, 1884, along with the latter affidavit, in which she said “the statement I made last night is true,” Cleveland “had attempted to pile up mud upon me,” and that “no one” pressured her to make her statements. She added, “Allow me to tell you the meanness of the man. When I sent for him, and informed him of my condition, he said: ‘What the devil are you blubbering about? You act like a baby without teeth. What do you want me to do?’”

Lachman should have included the Detroit Free Press dispatch, but Senik should have included the Chicago Tribune dispatch. The reality is that one of the two articles is false, and we don’t know which one. But Senik does not want to entertain the possibility that the character of Cleveland’s private life did not match the character in his public life. Any uncertainty would interfere with the book’s premise, that Cleveland had “superhuman moral courage.”

Whether or not Cleveland deserves scorn for sexual misconduct, Senik still deserves credit for a brisk and substantive assessment of Cleveland’s presidency that helps readers understand the confusing politics of the Gilded Age. And while it is doubtful that Senik had Trump on his mind, his portrayal shows how Trump cannot model himself after Cleveland. Trump may outlast his Republican rivals in the 2024 primary, and maybe even reclaim the presidency. But it won’t be because he is a man known for his sense of propriety and fair play.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.