About Grover Cleveland (No, Not The Turnpike Rest Stop)

PRINCETON, NJ – Recently, a member of the Quayle family made me think.

I know! It wasn’t even Dan, but his son Ben. He’s running for a House seat out in Arizona, trying to make some waves, so he gets all butch in a new commercial in which he declares, “Barack Obama is the worst president in history.”

This is just too rich. I’ll admit that America loves to hate on its presidents. Bill Clinton got impeached. George W. Bush has been named the worst president numerous times, though anyone worth listening to will admit that it’s far too soon to tell and I can’t remember anyone of stature making that claim about Bush when he was only 19 months into his term.

Which is why the Quayle ad made me think. This is something he said unprompted and then paid to have broadcast to people who will soon render their judgment on whether he should become a member of Congress. Some votes will be cast on the basis of whether or not they agree with him and his most distinguishable statement.

Worst president in history? 19 months in? I mean, you wouldn’t take someone seriously if they said, “Glee is the best television show in history.”

It seems that we are losing perspective on history faster than ever these days. And because Ben Quayle got me thinking about this, I paid a visit to Grover Cleveland.

If Cleveland’s name sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s probably because you heard about him in high school, as the 22nd, and then 24th president of the United States. If Cleveland’s name sounds familiar to you now, it’s probably because you do a lot of driving on the Turnpike. He has a rest stop named after him.

Cleveland was once considered a not so great president; then a better president; then a terrible president; then a near-great president; and finally, a mediocre president, where he has stood in history for the last several decades. But Cleveland was epic in his time, and the fact that such a person can be relegated to an unremarkable categorization should give pause to the Ben Quayles of the world.

There are many things that make Cleveland’s presidency memorable. For one, he was the only Democrat to be elected to the White House for a fifty-year period, from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson. He is the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms (thus why Barack Obama is the 44th president when there have only been 43). He was the only president to win the popular vote three times until Franklin Roosevelt did it four times over. And he was the only president ever born in New Jersey—not too far from that Turnpike rest stop, in fact.

What made Cleveland so great was his toughness. As sheriff of New York’s Erie County, he personally tended to the hangings of murderers—“right hand on the rod attached to the trap bolt,” as The Buffalo Express said. He went on to become mayor of Buffalo, then governor of New York. Less than two years into his term, the Democrats nominated him for the presidency.

The campaign of 1884 was a tough one. A bachelor, his personal life was ridiculed for allegedly fathering a child out of wedlock. He responded to critics by essentially saying, ‘Yes, I sent money to the mother, but only because the other men she was sleeping with were married.’ People actually admired him for it.

In every major office he held, Cleveland had a reputation for vetoing spending. He sided with the New York City railroads against a bill that would have cut fares in half. He had avoided military service during the Civil War, sending a surrogate in his place, yet he still vetoed the funding for a soldiers’ monument, saying that taxation for such a project was unconstitutional. Not until FDR, who served more than 5 years longer than Cleveland did, would a president issue more vetoes.

And so, in 1888, the country turned back to its Republican inclinations, narrowly ousting Cleveland in the Electoral College though he still won the popular vote. Yet the erratic presidency of Benjamin Harrison stood in such contrast to Cleveland’s steadiness, the Democrat was returned to office in 1892.

His second term started at the beginning of an economic depression, and Cleveland did much to preserve the nation’s financial standing by preventing Congress from heaping too much money onto an economy that couldn’t handle it, having to make deals with bankers and shun his base. The Democrats would spend the next four elections nominating his ideological antithesis—the man was deeply unpopular with both political parties.

In later years, Cleveland’s actions would come to be admired, but as memory of him faded, he was supplanted by newer examples of toughness against popular opinion. And now he rests here in Princeton, an unremarkable plot with a fat marker barely distinguishable from the others around it.

Which is why no matter how great or how terrible we think a president is in the present day, it’s silly to say we know how they’ll be remembered. Let’s just hope no one ever has a reason to name a rest stop after Ben Quayle.