Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th president of the United States, the only man to win nonconsecutive terms in the Oval Office. In his new book, Man of Iron, author Troy Senik discusses Cleveland’s improbable rise from obscure lawyer in upstate New York to mayor of Buffalo, governor of New York, and finally, in 1885, president of the United States; followed by his subsequent loss of the White House in the election of 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, and his unprecedented—and as yet unrepeated—return to the Oval Office after beating Harrison in 1892. Senik also discusses Cleveland’s complicated personal life, why Cleveland helped pioneer the concept of limited government, and why he fiercely opposed the forces of American imperialism. Cleveland also fought against Congress and the political machines in place at the time, including the one in his own party, making him a true maverick long before that phrase was ever applied to politicians.
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Peter Robinson: The former president is ready for a comeback despite being a political novice and facing a sex scandal that nearly ended his campaign, he took down a titan of the political establishment in a first bid for the White House squeezing into office by the slimmest of margins. After four years of disrupting business as usual in Washington, he was denied reelection in a close race that some of his supporters claimed was stolen from him. And now he looks poised for a third presidential run at a historic restoration to office. The year is 1892, and the former president in question is not Donald Trump or anyone even remotely like him, it's Grover Cleveland. Troy Senik, the author of a splendid new biography on Grover Cleveland, on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. A graduate of Belmont University and Pepperdine, Troy Senik served as a speech writer for President George W. Bush. He has written extensively on politics, served as vice president of the Manhattan Institute, and hosts the Law Talk podcast. He is also a founder of Kite & Key, a digital media company devoted to public policy. And now Troy Senik has published a book, "A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland". Troy, welcome.
Troy Senik: Peter, delighted to be with you.
Peter Robinson: All right, I'm going to begin with the back of this book. I'm quoting from the acknowledgments. You write about your pals, Matt Latimer and Keith Urbanh, who runs something called Javelin, the literary agency, and you mentioned that, quote, "during a purely social visit they told you there was a market for a new Grover Cleveland biography". By the way, that strikes me as an odd conversation right there. But it gets stranger. "Neither of them realizing that they were sitting across the table from someone," Troy Senik, "who had been nursing that ambition for the better part of two decades," close quote. You spent almost 20 years wanting to write a book about Grover Cleveland. Grover Cleveland? Explain this. Explain this.
Troy Senik: That does not sound like a sign of mental well-being, is what you're suggesting.
Peter Robinson: Your words, not mine, but yes.
Troy Senik: I had an interest in Grover Cleveland that went back to my childhood, went back to my teenage years. And the only way that I can explain it to you, I developed an interest in American history, and specifically the presidency, and why does this antique figure from the late 19th century stand out to me.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Troy Senik: For a lot of the same reasons that I wrote the book, which is that he is a man who is very much counter to his era in American politics, this is a guy who comes in and breaks furniture a little bit, totally moving against the tide of that era. And I suppose like a lot of us that maybe biography informs ideology a little bit. And I'm a guy who grew up in a very rural part of Southern California. When you hear the word Southern California, you are not thinking of the place where I grew up, which looks like Arizona and feels like Oklahoma. It was a rural existence. We rode horses, not bicycles. We lived off of a dirt road. And so as I got interested in politics, it's funny, the first political figure I can ever remember being compelled by, not that I had any sense for the substance of what he was doing was about, was Ross Perot. Because this outsider sensibility, because for somebody who came from a sort of social milieu like I came from, the defining feature of politics as a young kid was the falseness of it, you know. You'd watch somebody on a Sunday show and they'd be speaking in this strange language that was only accessible to politicians.
Peter Robinson: Southern California, you grew up inland.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: What? Two hours drive from the coast?
Troy Senik: Yeah, that's about right.
Peter Robinson: And so there you were leading a life of the kind that for decades, centuries, couple of centuries at least, Americans have thought of as the, the authentic American way of life. And just two hours away was Hollywood and Universal theme park and Disneyland and that all seemed garish and fake and yet dominant.
Troy Senik: That's basically right. Although I have to say, it wasn't driven by a resentment. I didn't begrudge them this. It just felt false. And so when I saw politicians on television, I didn't talk like anybody that I knew. They didn't go to colleges that anybody that I knew went to. So as I looked back through American history, I suppose that I had a weakness for these figures like Grover Cleveland who kind of emerge ex nihilo. I mean, he comes in the middle of his life with not much of a political background.
Peter Robinson: We'll come to that.
Troy Senik: Yeah, okay.
Peter Robinson: All right. I'm persuaded actually. I sort of... All right, Grover Cleveland, the inaccessible man, he's born in 1837. That is a long time ago. He was born just a couple of weeks after Martin Van Buren became president. Cleveland goes on to become our 22nd and 24th president, serving from 1885 to 1889 and then again from 1893 to 1897. Americans can picture the civil war if only because Ken Burns did the documentary that made the civil war indelible all over again. Then we come to the roaring '20s, there's a gap there.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: All right, "A Man of Iron", I'm quoting you, Troy, "If Cleveland seems like an inaccessible figure, it's in large part because we don't understand the America he inhabited, a country somehow more alien to us than the more distant ones of the civil war or even the Founding Fathers." Explain that.
Troy Senik: Well, when you're thinking about the civil war or you're thinking about the founding generation, the principles at play in those eras are quite simple, quite accessible for a modern audience because they're so fundamental. You're talking about the late 19th century. I mean, we could go through the list of some of the issues that Grover Cleveland dealt with during his presidency and, my God, do they seem foreign. We're talking about pensions for military veterans. We're talking about civil service protections. We're talking about the role of silver in the monetary supply.
Peter Robinson: The issues are not war on peace or slavery and freedom, the issues are economic growth, the emergence of new industries, the adjustment of the government to a much bigger country and economy, and it's complicated.
Troy Senik: It's complicated. And it's hard for Americans to get a beat on any of these issues, which is why, as I go through the book, I keep trying to draw analogies. Like, there are huge fights about tariffs during the Cleveland years. You know, when I was a kid and we got the two days of American history that are dedicated to this period in the country's history, I always thought, "Why did they care about tariffs so much," 'cause all you knew is that they fought about tariffs. Well, they cared about tariffs because fighting about tariffs during those days would be the equivalent to fighting about individual income tax rates today. That's where all the money came from.
Peter Robinson: For the federal government.
Troy Senik: For the federal government with a few exceptions. There are excise taxes for liquor and things like this, Western land sales. But that's the reason that it has that kind of salience in his era. And in large measure this is first and foremost a biography of Grover Cleveland, but I am trying to sneak in there, for Americans who had the same kind of education that I did, just sort of a remedial course in what mattered during this era and why because it is so faint to us now.
Peter Robinson: By the way, I keep holding the book up to the camera flat on, I wanna hold it by the side because, first of all, you write beautifully; and second of all-
Troy Senik: That's very kind.
Peter Robinson: The book is this thick, not this thick. We're not talking about a tome here, we're talking about something: if you fall in love with it, you can read it in a weekend and you can certainly read it over a couple of weeks if you keep it on your bedside table. All right, the development, we'll work our way into the era and into what the man was like by talking about the pre-presidential Cleveland, who's pretty interesting. I grew up in upstate New York, and this period of upstate New York that you write about was long gone even in my own-
Troy Senik: Sure.
Peter Robinson: Childhood, okay. So he's the son of a Presbyterian minister who dies when Cleveland is still a teen. Cleveland moves to Buffalo, where he has an uncle, and takes up the study of the law. At the age of 33, he's elected as a Democrat, as sheriff of Erie County. Okay, why Buffalo, why the law, why does upstate New York matter in a way that it hasn't mattered in about 120 years? Fill us in on this development of this young man.
Troy Senik: So as you say, his father passes away when he's 16 quite suddenly. And it's relevant to know that he's from a very large family. He's the fifth of nine children and the second oldest son. So a lot of the financial responsibility for caring for his widowed mother and his younger sisters falls on his shoulders. And he goes to New York City for a year, teaches in a school for the blind, hates it, partially because he regards it as almost more like an asylum; returns home to upstate New York with a mindset that he has to go somewhere to make himself. He's thinking he's gonna go West. He does not set out to go to Buffalo. He sets out to go to Cleveland, Ohio, named after a distant relative of his, and it seems like that was at least part of the consideration. Remember, we're talking about an 18-year-old boy here, so not crazy to imagine that that factored in. But crazy for him to have thought that this was something resembling an actual plan. Buffalo happens as a sort of happy accident because he stops off there on the way to Cleveland. And as you say, he has an uncle by marriage there, a man by the name of Lewis Allen, who's pretty prominent in the community. He's a wealthy real estate developer, is involved in politics, but is a Whig, does not share Grover's politics. But he sees in his nephew some potential that he feels is going to go to waste if he follows through on this kind of half-thought through plan to go to Cleveland and gets him installed in a local law firm there. We really don't have any evidence as to why the law, other than a sense that Cleveland clearly wanted to make something of himself and this was the thing that he seemed best calibrated for. And it's worth knowing, he gets some distinction as a lawyer in Buffalo, but it's not because he's Perry Mason. This is not somebody who is known for courtroom theatrics; this is somebody who barely sees the inside of a courtroom. He is constantly being paired with lawyers who do fit that description. Lawyers who, by the way, it's worth mentioning, are usually pretty politically connected. This is a subtle part of his rise. But Grover Cleveland's the guy in the office until two o'clock in the morning going through every footnote, figuring out every detail. And you will see-
Peter Robinson: Hardworking.
Troy Senik: Hardworking-
Peter Robinson: Meticulous.
Troy Senik: Hardworking to a point that, even by today's standards, we would regard as excessive. And the normal work hours for Grover Cleveland throughout his career always attested to be 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. or so. And this is where he starts generating attention because he's at a prominent firm, but even there he's not the guy that you look at and think, "Well, someday he's gonna be the mayor of the city, someday he's gonna be governor."
Peter Robinson: By the way, I wanna move next to his political career. Of course, but it's worth noting, as you do, that, Buffalo, Buffalo of all places, was the happening town. The Erie Canal has cut across upstate New York, and Buffalo is right there. The Great Lakes' end, so to speak, viewed one way at Buffalo, the Erie Canal you can go from Buffalo on down to New York, New York City that is. And so Grover Cleveland, through this happenstance of an uncle, ends up a lawyer doing the sort of legal infrastructure of a growing town in a growing American economy, correct?
Troy Senik: Yeah, and it's a great place to be if your profile is Grover Cleveland's, and that this is a city that is emerging and coming into its own but doesn't have sort of an old cast of social elites.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Troy Senik: And if you were this kid-
Peter Robinson: There are no Vanderbilts or Rensselaers. There's no old Dutch, Roosevelts, as there are in New York.
Troy Senik: That's right. There's a path for Grover Cleveland in Buffalo that there never would've been had he stayed in Manhattan when he was 18 years old.
Peter Robinson: Right, right. All right, so before I get to the beginning of the political career, we've got to touch on the civil war. 1862, the war is underway, Cleveland starts his own law practice and hires a substitute to take his place in the Union Army. Perfectly legal to do it.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: But a little bit disappointing for those of us who want to give our hearts to the man. In all biographies of John D. Rockefeller, it is a problem that Rockefeller paid somebody to fight in the civil war for him.
Troy Senik: I think it's legitimate to be disappointed with Cleveland over this. The explanation behind it goes back to the point that I made earlier, which is that he was still financially responsible for the welfare of his mother and his younger sisters. He had an older brother who was in the ministry, no money to be found there. Two of the younger brothers had already served on the Union side. And in fact, one of them volunteered to go back in his place, and he dismissed that out of hand. He said, "Fred has done enough," characteristically terse Grover Cleveland is. And it is used against him later on in his political career, but it doesn't stick that much. And it's funny, there's not a lot of details as to why it didn't stick that much. But I think it's-
Peter Robinson: He's transparently not a coward.
Troy Senik: He's transparently not a coward, but I think there's one other element, which is I think it's fair to infer that it's one of those black marks on somebody's record that brings with it too many things that are not black marks. Namely, it is reminding you that this was a Northern Democrat who was eligible to serve on the Union side, not particularly helpful to the Republicans of that era who were still dedicated to waving the bloody shirt, as they call it, to associating the Democrats with the Confederacy and with rebellion. And I think that's one of the reasons they never pushed on that quite as hard as you would otherwise think they would.
Peter Robinson: Got it. By the way, so he's a Democrat. How did that happen?
Troy Senik: You know, it's funny, Grover Cleveland is not an introspective man. There are not voluminous diary entries with him explaining his thinking. Weirdly, particularly because his political career starts relatively late, he almost emerges sort of fully formed, so we don't have anything in his own hand that explains this. And to circle back to the point I was thinking about myself at the start, I suppose that one could make a reasonable conjecture that biography informs ideology here. Remember Cleveland, a Democrat of Cleveland's era and a Democrat of Cleveland's particular cast, is a classical liberal Democrat out of the Jeffersonian tradition: limited government, constitutionalist, light touch on economic matters.
Peter Robinson: He anticipates the Reagan Democrats by a little more than a century.
Troy Senik: Yes, he does.
Peter Robinson: As a young man.
Troy Senik: And this is all consistent with something that you see throughout his life and actually throughout his lineage, which this is a family, even though he's born in New Jersey, this is a family of New England Puritans, this is a family of people who really believe in the value of self-discipline and hard work. The earliest writing we have in his hand from when he's in elementary school is him writing admiringly about George Washington and Andrew Jackson as children because he respects the fact that they applied their time wisely. And that was the thing that made them successes later on in life, that deeply Puritan sentiment. And that has always been my supposition about how you get the classical liberal Democrat that Grover Cleveland is.
Peter Robinson: All right, now comes the rise, the political, almost the moment he enters politics things begin to happen. "A Man of Iron". "At the age of 44, 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." So he becomes sheriff of Erie County for a couple of years in his 30s, then gets back out of politics and devotes himself to the law. But in the next four years, he's now 44 years old, "In the next four years, he would," four years, "he would become the mayor of Buffalo, the governor of New York, and the 22nd president of the United States." From obscurity to the White House in four years, how?
Troy Senik: You know, it's interesting, when he leaves as sheriff, he doesn't leave particularly popular amongst his fellow Democrats. When he comes into that office, it is understood that the sheriff's office in Erie County, and in a lot of parts of the country at the time, are bastions of corruption. And he comes in there, and in characteristic Grover Cleveland fashion, when they are making deliveries of cordwood to the sheriff's office, he is measuring them to make sure that the county has gotten everything that they ordered. Because standard practice before this would've been a little always falls off the truck, the sheriff gets a cut. A lot of his fellow Democrats do not like this. In the early part of his career up through this mayor's race is sort of distinguished by Grover Cleveland gets asked to do jobs that nobody else wants to do. He's a reliable party regular, nobody thinks that highly of him, but he's got this reputation and they think that that's good, this reputation for integrity, and they think that that's good for some Republican crossover votes. Very valuable at the time because Buffalo is still slightly more Republican than Democratic town, and this is the story behind his recruitment to run for mayor. The Democratic apparatus in Buffalo couldn't find anybody else. And the genesis of his campaign is him walking into one of his favorite pubs in Buffalo, finding some downcast Democratic Party men because they haven't been able to recruit a candidate. They sit around, and after a couple of rounds somebody says, "Well, you could do it." And he's resistant to this at the start. I tried very hard in this book, there are some sort of hagiographic accounts of Cleveland that make him seem like the starlet in the drug store who's just discovered, and this sweet wind kind of sweeps him up all the way to the Oval Office, that's not correct. There's something to that, but it's really overstated. But the real genuine ambition doesn't come until later, a little later down the road. So sheriff, mayor, this is really just people coming and recruiting him. So how does this happen so quickly? The context is really important of the era. Post-civil war you're in an environment where the Republican Party, as a result of the war, is in control of almost everything for a very long period of time. And in the book, I refer to what follows as something like the equivalent of political gout. They had it too good for too long. And the federal government in particular, but this is true even further down the line, is rife with corruption, in many cases, open corruption. I mean, at this moment you have this huge party splitting fight within the Republican Party over whether party patronage and the civil service, whether this is just the way you do business. You give the job to your guy whether he's doing it honestly or not, or whether you need you civil service reforms and to do this based on merit. The reason that Cleveland's ascent is so fast is that you have a guy who is able to unify the Democratic Party behind him, but attract this reformist contingent of Republicans without making them feeling, feel like they're betraying their republicanism. He is a political purgative. He is the remedy for this corruption. This is how he is viewed everywhere. Because he says from early on two important things, I think both from the mayoral campaign, one is, "There's no difference between a Democratic thief and a Republican thief." He's very open from the start that, "I'm going after all of them." And the second, which is one of the few sort of philosophical constants throughout his career, is that any time the government spends a cent more than is required for the basic necessities of government that is tantamount to theft. So he is putting the political class on notice from the start. "I am not here for you. I am not here for the Democratic Party. I am here for the taxpayers of the city of Buffalo, the State of New York, ultimately the citizens of the United States of America."
Peter Robinson: So this is the kind of man who would not appeal at all to the party pros, except that, in his very person, he solves a serious problem for them.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: And the problem is how do we put together a coalition big enough to win? And because he can hold the Democrats and this sense of probity and integrity, which is surely anathema to much of many of the political pros-
Troy Senik: Very much so.
Peter Robinson: And you write in the book about his constant fights with Tammany down the political machine. He's not a machine man.
Troy Senik: No.
Peter Robinson But he can get the votes. So the machine will back him, and Republicans will turn, and off he goes. Because in his very person it's not a detailed set of policies, it's not some kind of, not that-
Troy Senik: Yeah, that's right.
Peter Robinson: But in his very person, he solves a major, the major political problem of electoral politics for the Democrats.
Troy Senik: For the Democrats. And I think it's worth remembering that the Democrats had to endure a lot of losses before making that kind of concession to a figure like him became palatable. Because he is the only Democrat elected between James Buchanan in 1856 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912, so there were lots and lots of rounds of Democrats trying to do something closer to business as usual before you get to 1884 and Grover Cleveland and they finally throw up their hands and go, "Okay, we'll try it."
Peter Robinson: All right, now this is the place where real frustration for me begins to kick in because we have this fascinating period, this wonderful book, and yet we're doing television. We're podcasting. So we have to reduce the ox to a bouillon cube.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: The first term. He's elected in 1884. He takes office in March of 1885. He serves for four years. Glimpses. That's all we can do, I think.
Troy Senik: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: The Texas Seed Bill. 1887, there's a drought in Texas. The drought is so bad these farmers have eaten their seed corn, so to speak. They've got nothing. And Congress says, "Well, let's just get them started. we'll pass a bill that'll give them enough loot to buy some seed corn." And Grover Cleveland vetoes it.
Troy Senik: Vetoes it.
Peter Robinson: And he writes this in his veto message. And your job is going to be to make this intelligible to a voter of 2022. Grover Cleveland writes this, "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution." He goes to the Constitution.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Nothing here. You guys can't do that. "Though the people support the government the government should not support the people." Make that intelligible.
Troy Senik: Isn't that amazing? The first line of that always gets quoted by libertarians. So the libertarians can't bear to quote the next line because it is so unpalatable the way that he puts it.
Peter Robinson: Yes, yes.
Troy Senik: Government supporting the people.
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Troy Senik: If you actually read it in its full context, first of all, the charge you gave me was to explain it to the voters of 2022, I will pass. I don't think that I'm up to that. But within the confines of its own era, and trying to explain the way that Grover Cleveland thought about it, there is something that is interesting about that veto message if you read it further. It always gets brought up one of two ways: approvingly by libertarian types, as I just mentioned, or disparagingly by people who think that this is everything wrong with libertarian style thinking. And what they all aligned, and I'm careful to put it in the book, is the broader context of what he actually says in that message. His message there is not go pound sand, it's not in the Constitution. His message is-
Peter Robinson: Cleveland to Texas: drop dead. That would've been the headline in the newspaper had the New York Post been around-
Troy Senik: His message is that when you do these sorts of things, it creates an expectation amongst the citizenry, that something's always gonna be forthcoming from the government when something goes bad and that what they actually need to do is to rely on the bonds of civil society; that the fundamentally American thing to do is to help your neighbor. And he thinks that there is something morally enervating about the idea that in a situation like this people turn to Washington. You can debate whether or not that observation holds up. That was really the root-
Peter Robinson: Wait a minute, why do we need to debate that? We both know perfectly well it holds up.
Troy Senik: But this was at the root of what he was thinking. And this is at the root of a lot of things that he gets tagged with as sort of humbuggery years later: there is always some moral principle underlying, and oftentimes to his political detriment. It's always there.
Peter Robinson: Silver.
Troy Senik: Mm.
Peter Robinson: Oh, this gets complicated. It's monetary policy, it gets complicated. I'm going to put it very briefly and you're going to tell me why Cleveland took the stand he did.
Troy Senik: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: And by the way, I'm not even sure I'll get it right when I try to compress it. Again, it gets complicated. The currency was based on gold. We had gold coins that were minted. And the argument was that we should also mint coins out of silver, which was in effect arguing that we should expand the money supply.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Which would benefit debtors, farmers, new enterprises, people who needed to borrow money. By the way, this was a position popular in the Democratic Party, and William Jennings Bryan, who's a major figure for the rest of the 19th century, the Democrats nominate him three times, is a silver man. And Cleveland says, "No, gold and gold alone." Why?
Troy Senik: Well, Grover Cleveland, I think a lot of it comes down to the mind of Grover Cleveland. And what I mean by that is this is a real lawyer's mind. This is somebody who cares about precision. This is somebody who cares about principle. Anything willy-nilly automatically kind of stinks to him. And as I write in the book, I'm sort of sussing this out from things that he's written at the time, he never says this explicitly, but I think it's pretty clear if you read between the lines. He doesn't like this because, as a lawyer, he is thinking expansion of the monetary supply, by the way, there was already some silver in the monetary supply. The real push here was expanded for these inflationary purposes. And the reason it's so popular within the Democratic Party is a lot of these people in the West and the South who are highly leveraged they're Democrats, they're Democratic voters, and that faction, the Bryan faction, is much more popular within the party that he is already yesterday's man at this point in making this argument.
Peter Robinson: As a sitting president.
Troy Senik: As a sitting president, he is losing this battle within his party. All the energy is going in the opposite direction. There is a violation of principle here that bothers him. If you are changing the terms of the monetary supply, you are changing what every contract in America is denominated in. Again, this seems antique to modern audience-
Peter Robinson: The sanctity of contract.
Troy Senik: The sanctity of contract. As a classical liberal, he just cannot get his head around this. We have to have, this is a consistent theme throughout his presidency and throughout his life, one set of rules for everybody. If you had to distill his political philosophy into one sentence, it would be that. So the idea that you flip a switch in a case like this and do a de facto redistribution across the country, anathema, anathema to him.
Peter Robinson: We could have written the speech, though. We could've said, "Mr. President, you are going to give a speech in which you talk about helping the little man, helping the guy who needs help," and of course all this would come six-ish decades later.
Troy Senik: Yep.
Peter Robinson: All right, tariffs. Again, these are issues.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Texas Seed Bill, silver, tariffs, these are issues that are just completely foreign to us, but were central, created rages and arguments and... All right, tariffs, high tariffs, this is, in effect, taxes on imported goods, had been introduced during the civil war, and the argument supporting them was that it protected American industry. It made it possible for American manufacturers to sell their goods in the United States and made it much more hard, much more difficult, or unlikely that a foreign entity would be able to undercut Americans, okay. Now and sometime after the civil war, Republicans wanna keep the tariffs high, and Grover Cleveland wants to cut them. How come?
Troy Senik: What's interesting, the way that the tariff issue plays out in Grover Cleveland's era is very different than the way that we think of it now.
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Troy Senik: Insofar as Grover Cleveland's position is not just tariffs for the sake of what we call tax relief, even though he believes that, Grover Cleveland thinks, contrary the way it'd be talked about today, that cutting tariffs is the populist position because he looks at the tariff system and sees the system of collusion. He looks at this and says, "Well, who gets the tariffs?" Whoever the corporate interests are or who have Congress wired. And it's important to note because, again, this is where it can get distorted by the way that we think about it now, nobody is talking about free trade. We're talking about lower tariffs versus higher tariffs. Free trade at this point, in the American political context, was absolutely toxic. And one of the reasons that it was toxic, particularly within the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party has a big contingent of Irish voters and free trade is regarded as suspiciously English in Providence, so one was never to flirt with free trade. So this is at the root of it. Cleveland wants to jumpstart the economy. Also, there is a massive surplus at this time. And for the guy who says any extra cent is theft, that's morally offensive, the idea that you're taking in this level of tariffs at the same time that you've got all this money sitting in the vaults. But it all goes back to this-
Peter Robinson: The amazing thing, I'm sorry to interrupt, but the amazing thing is you just get this again and again and again and again. It really is a living idea in his head that that money belongs to people.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: It is not the government's money. It's not just tax revenues, it belongs to his neighbors in Buffalo, it belongs to poor struggling people like his own siblings when they were young. It's a living idea-
Troy Senik: He talks about it in these terms. There are several speeches where he refers to the public official's responsibility as that of a fiduciary. What would you do if you knew the person whose money you were holding?
Peter Robinson: Right.
Troy Senik: You would fear their judgment if you had betrayed their trust in the way that you did business. He keeps that with him throughout his life. It's interesting, for somebody who ends up in the White House, all of his characteristics are the ones that you would want from somebody who ran the local general store, you know. There's just a horse sense, a sense of basic responsibility and decency towards your fellow citizens that animates him.
Peter Robinson: Right. Troy, I have to ask. One other glimpse of the first term and his vetoes, dozens and dozens and dozens of vetoes of private pension bills, explain that briefly, but again the underlying Cleveland principle at work here.
Troy Senik: Yeah, because it's interesting, 'cause this is one of the few things that people know about Grover Cleveland, or at least his first term, he vetoes, I think the number is 414 bills in his first term, which is more than the previous 21 presidents combined. Now, you hear that and you think that he's doing battle with Congress over all these sweeping programs, that's not it. It is mostly these military pensions. These are pensions paid out to Union veterans, not Confederate, to the extent that was done, it was only done by the states in the South, for their service during the civil war. Cleveland has no objection to this arrangement even though you would rarely know this by reading some of the shorthand accounts, which again make this seem like kind of humbuggery. What he has a problem with is that the Republican Party at the time in Congress is really using this as constituency-building. It's, "Come on up, get a pension." Because the criteria were that you had actually suffered an injury during the course of your service that limited your working capacity and that's entitled you to the money. Cleveland starts inspecting these things himself and realizes a lot of this is just outright fraudulent. I mean, in the book I include a couple of his veto messages, which are hilarious because they're so strange to have come from the pen of a president, him talking about somebody who's applying for a pension because they had broken a leg while picking flowers. People weren't even really going to great effort to try to conceal what was going on. But as ever, there's a principle. In fact, it's worth remembering, he actually signs way more of these than he vetoes. People only remember the vetoes. He thinks the pensions are important. What repulsed him is the idea that this pension role, which he sees as a role of honor, you stood up at a moment when you needed to to defend your country, to preserve the Union, and the idea that we're gonna put you alongside somebody who lied about the whole thing, couldn't tolerate it. The money was secondary. The principle was first.
Peter Robinson: Okay, first term, we'll come to the second term in a moment, but we've been talking about probity, integrity, principle and this brings us to his personal life.
Troy Senik: Yes, it does.
Peter Robinson: Which was a little odd.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: You say he was from an old Puritan New England stock and indeed he was, but he spent a lot of time in saloons in Buffalo. He worked hard, long hours, but he found time to have a drink with the boys.
Peter Robinson: A good amount of it.
Troy Senik: A lot of it actually. And then, well, I'm quoting the book again, "Cleveland came to office having endured a sex scandal during the 1884 presidential campaign, when he was accused of having fathered a child out of wedlock during his years as a Buffalo bachelor and subsequently of having had the mother institutionalized." He was accused, the passive voice there. I'm not going to accuse you, right, because you answered the question and I'm now putting it to you on camera here, was it true?
Troy Senik: Elements of it were true. I went in-
Peter Robinson: That's a rather lawyerly answer yourself there.
Troy Senik: I will give you the deconstruction of it-
Peter Robinson: All right, go ahead.
Troy Senik: To the extent without getting fully into the forensics, which people can read the book if they want to get an account at that depth. So Cleveland, shortly after he gets the nomination in 1884, he is still unmarried at this point, he's yet to be married, is accused of having fathered a child out of wedlock about a decade prior back in Buffalo with this local woman named Maria Halpin. The allegations that run in the newspaper start with that basic fact, but build into this grand sort of soap opera of allegations. The child is abducted from her, she is institutionalized, all this it is alleged because he is so nervous about how this is going to affect his potential political prospects that you just have to get her out of the way. So what do we actually know about what happened? Well, not everything, is the first part of that. A lot of this stuff has been lost to history in a way. But we know enough to make some reasonable judgments. It seems very clear that there was a relationship between him and this woman. Nobody really seems to have denied that at the time. It's very clear that she did in fact have a child. Now, there are allegations at the time, mostly from Cleveland supporters, that she was seen with several men during the era and that he was the only one who was single. So he was the logical choice for her to try to rope into marriage by alleging that he was the father. Cleveland, by the way, is more outraged about this because it's implying some of his friends than he is about the allegations put towards himself. But the real fireworks in this story we now know are products of the sort of partisan press at the time, the idea that the mother was institutionalized-
Peter Robinson: Hold on, wait, wait, wait. Was it his child? Or we do not know that?
Troy Senik: We do not know with 100% certainty. But gun to my head, a week's salary, I would bet it's his.
Peter Robinson: All right.
Troy Senik: That's my best conclusion.
Peter Robinson: And he himself remained vague on that point-
Troy Senik: He does. You know, it's a little strange because there are admiring accounts of him which point to the fact that he told his campaign associates, "Whatever you do, tell the truth." And the story always stops there. They never tell you what the truth actually was. And this does not happen in the way that it would in a campaign in the year 2024. There is no expectation that Grover Cleveland is gonna go in front of a bank of cameras and tell you exactly what happened.
Peter Robinson: No paternity tests.
Troy Senik: No. And he just makes the decision, "I have to take my lumps." So he just sticks with it throughout the campaign, doesn't really say much, and he is right. It does go away. But these allegations about the child being stolen, the mother being institutionalized they're all sort of funhouse mirrors of things that actually happened. The real story is he was concerned about the welfare of this child because the mother had a fairly serious alcohol problem, even her defenders concede this point in the era. And he went to a friend of his, a retired judge in Buffalo who sat on the board of a local orphanage, asked him to look in on the child and make it a determination as to whether it was safe for the child to be in that household. Judge reached the conclusion that it wasn't. So the mother, Maria Halpin-
Peter Robinson: Nothing improper in any of this.
Troy Senik: Nothing improper in any of this-
Peter Robinson: But also still unsatisfying. He didn't say to the judge-
Troy Senik: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: This is my child.
Troy Senik: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: All right.
Troy Senik: The mother at that point accedes to the request. The child is put into an orphanage to eventually be put out for adoption. She's given some money to go start a new life in Niagara Falls. The story that we get in the newspaper is what happens afterwards. She regrets this decision. She comes back, she abducts the child from the orphanage. So the child being stolen from her, those are the authorities from the orphanage-
Peter Robinson: Right.
Troy Senik: Coming to reclaim the child. Maria Halpin going to the asylum, that is Maria Halpin being removed to a sanitarium where mental health issues were treated, but so was her alcoholism. She was there voluntarily. She was there for about 10 days. So as you suggest, nothing about this story makes Grover Cleveland seem heroic. But the thing that actually helps him in that day and age is that the other side has so overplayed their hand, they have made this so elaborate, and he hasn't flinched, that he comes out of it looking Okay.
Peter Robinson: All right. Midway through his first term, the still single 49-year-old Grover Cleveland marries Frances Folsom.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: The 21-year-old daughter of Cleveland's deceased best friend, Oscar Folsom. That is icky. That's just unsettling.
Troy Senik: Stipulated.
Peter Robinson: You're willing to grant that?
Troy Senik: Yes, yes.
Peter Robinson: And yet they have children. They have what appears to be a perfectly happy life together.
Troy Senik: On all account seems to have been a very happy marriage. I don't know, I actually researched this, and looking at the book, and couldn't find a satisfactory answer. I doubt that it was dramatically less icky in the era, but it seems to have been somewhat less. It's amazing how little of the press coverage at the time is focused on this. Now, this is partially because the press adores this woman. Frances Cleveland is Jackie Kennedy before her time.
Peter Robinson: Yes, yes, right.
Troy Senik: But there are a couple elements of this story too that get really distorted in the popular telling. One of which is that Grover Cleveland essentially raised this woman, that she was his legal ward because the father, his former law partner, had passed away in a carriage accident. And so you'll read these stories kind of suggesting that he was grooming her all along. This paired with this famous quotation where a sister asks him while he's still single, "Why haven't you married yet?" And he says, "I'm just waiting for my bride to grow up." You wanna talk about icky. Both of these, again, things missing vital context, which I only discovered in the writing of this book. This has mostly been alighted by historians. When Oscar Folsom, his law partner, passes away, Frances Folsom is made his legal ward, but in a somewhat unusual legal arrangement for the day he is essentially just kind of the executor of the state, he has a fiduciary responsibility to her and her mother. Not only does he not raise her, they live in a different state for a big chunk of this time, they're in Minnesota. And when she comes back to New York, she's actually engaged to somebody else. And the famous quotation about, "I'm just waiting for my wife to grow up," actually tracked this down to the Library of Congress to find where the quote came from, always attributed to his sister, and that's correct. But when you read the original document, there's a clear sequence that she's laying out as to when all these events happened. And this is a conversation that took place in the 1850s, prior to the civil war, prior to Frances Folsom being born, prior to Grover Cleveland probably having even met her father. His sister only thought that this was interesting because of the ironic coincidence that he ends up marrying this much younger woman.
Peter Robinson: This is a young man making a joke about intending to marry a...
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: All right. Troy-
Troy Senik: Sir.
Peter Robinson: We have time for about one question on the loss because we have to get to the second term, which is tremendously eventful. 1888 presidential election, Grover Cleveland wins 48.6% of the popular vote with about 5.5 million, Republican Benjamin Harrison just under 5.5 million or 47.8% of the popular vote. It's this close.
Troy Senik: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: But Grover Cleveland wins the popular vote. But Cleveland loses in the electoral college pretty handily, pretty big, 168 electoral votes to 233. Harrison takes much of the north, including New York, carries the far west and the south. And what seems to have mattered, Cleveland's rectitude, his assistance on sound money, the efficient administration, all the things that he stood for, in the end none of that seems to have mattered. What mattered was that he was a Democrat, and Democrats turned out and voted for their guy. So you have this strange feeling that all that we admire about Grover Cleveland really has almost no political traction at all. He wins the popular vote because he's a Democrat, because of the party affiliation. Okay, so I'm giving you this much time. How does he respond to the defeat? How does the country respond to the defeat in the electoral college?
Troy Senik: He responds to the defeat with equanimity. He's not deeply bothered by this. He's actually pretty happy to be a private citizen again. I think you mentioned this in the introduction at the very top. There are allegations that this election is stolen because the margins are so close. And it comes down to Indiana which is Harrison's home state, and New York which is Cleveland's home state. And by the way, it is worth stipulating the level of actual electoral chicanery at this point in American history-
Peter Robinson: Is high.
Troy Senik: Is high, is significant. In fact, there were clearly plots in both of these states, it's just they were both caught prior to the election. When Grover Cleveland has asked about these allegations, that the election had been potentially stolen from him, his response, he's asked, "What do you think happened," and he says, "I think the other party got the most votes." He's just unwilling to entertain-
Peter Robinson: That's the un-Donald Trump.
Troy Senik: It is the un-Donald Trump. Worth knowing, though, however, just a little piece of trivia in American history, the uncertainty around that, even though it's nothing like what we've seen with the uncertainty around 2020, is the big part of the reason that by the time that they have their rematch, Cleveland and Harrison, in 1892, most of the country has moved to the private ballot, to the secret ballot. That is mostly fallout from these allegations in 1888.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so I told a lie. I said I'd only give you one question about the interregnum period here between the two terms, but I'm going to ask you a second one. You say, and I can see why you say it, that in all kinds of ways Grover Cleveland does not have a political temperament. He has a judicial temperament.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: And I thought to myself, well, if we've got William Howard Taft to compare him to, Taft is a one-term president. And when he leaves office, he considers himself well out of it. He be goes on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court and says again and again and again for his remaining years that he prefers that job to the presidency. There's even a moment when Taft writes, "I don't remember that I was ever president."
Troy Senik: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: But Cleveland, although you said he was quite happy to be out of it, runs again. He wants, at some basic level, does he get talked into it, does he want vindication? We said a moment ago he's the un-Trump, but is he?
Troy Senik: Here's what I think the dynamic at work here is.
Peter Robinson: Mm-hmm.
Troy Senik: We would think of most politicians in that scenario to be animated by, "I need the power back. I was something, and now I'm nothing," and also, "I've gotta vindicate myself for this public humiliation that is losing a presidential election." There is none of that in him, at least for the first couple of years. As I say, he's quite content. And he tells friends, "I think I did enough. I think that first term was pretty good." As ever with Grover Cleveland, the political stuff is all downstream from the principle. He starts to get irritated. He starts to get irritated watching the Harrison administration undoing all the work that he had done. The tariffs that he had fought to lower, they go up. They go way up. The pensions that he had fought to keep constrained, they start growing to the point where they're essentially handouts at this point. And he's worried about where the Democratic Party is going on this question of silver. And he really feels, I think if you had to narrow it down to any one thing, he thinks he's the only thing standing between himself and the party in terms of not letting this become a runaway train, this silver mania, which he thinks is going to disrupt the entire American economic system.
Peter Robinson: All right. He runs again. He runs for a third time, and he gets elected. And his second term runs from 1893 to 1897. And it is marked by catastrophe.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: I'm not saying he causes the catastrophe, but now he's president and the economy collapses. Again, all we have time for is glimpses. The panic of 1893. I'm going to quote "A Man of Iron". "Economics has the capacity to overmatch the office of president in a way that even warfare does not," close quote. Just months after Cleveland begins his second term, the economy falls into the worst depression it had ever experienced to that point. Such a catastrophic event that Cleveland, Mr. Probity, Mr. Calm, Mr. Let Things Sort Themselves Out. Cleveland acts like an interventionist and calls Congress into special session. Explain, what's going on? What did he do? Did he get anything done? Did he accomplish anything?
Troy Senik: He eventually accomplished something. It's important to understand, at the risk of, I just have to be incredibly reductive about this because it is so complicated. But the root of the panic-
Peter Robinson: There is a book for people to read if they find this conversation unsatisfying.
Troy Senik: Well played. The roots of the panic of 1893 come down to this question about gold versus silver. And one of the reasons that he is never able to fully arrest the panic, because at the root is that gold reserves are being drawn down. The federal government is obligated to keep a certain minimum of gold in the banks, that's the guarantee that the gold standard is being abided by. But because you've got silver and gold in the economy at the same time, the silver is less valuable, so people are hoarding the gold. People are pulling gold out as quickly as they can. This is the fight that rages throughout his second term. He's constantly trying to replenish the gold, replenish the gold. There are all these little economic interventions like that. Does he solve the problem? No, he never really does. He staunches the bleeding. There are multiple rounds of these monetary interventions to try to get the system under control. But I think we have to grade him on a little bit of a curve here because the actual answer to this question, I think, is that there is no way that he could have solved it because the problem was his own party. This goes away actually after William McKinley gets elected and the Republicans take power because at some level-
Peter Robinson: McKinley's elected in what year?
Troy Senik: In 1896. Because at some level the panic of 1893 is fundamentally psychological. The reason that everybody is so uncertain about where to put their money and what to do with it is they don't know if this faction of Democrats is gonna pull the country off of the gold standard. So when you get McKinley in and Republicans who say, "Hey, we're gonna leave everything the way that it was. Everything's gonna be fine," the markets calm down. When it's Grover Cleveland and the White House fighting a faction of his own party, the politics damn him in the first place. There's no policy step because it's fundamentally the way the institutions are arranged during these years. These Democrats fighting each other. Nobody knows what's gonna happen.
Peter Robinson: The Pullman Strike of 1894, again, "A Man of Iron", "With more than 200,000 workers throughout the country participating in the boycott, the Pullman Strike," a strike against the company that makes railway cars, the Pullman Company. "the Pullman strike became the largest coordinated work stoppage in the country's history." Briefly, what were they striking about and what did Cleveland do about it and was it all to his credit?
Troy Senik: Well, this is a conflagration that emerges from what seems at first blush a relatively minor labor dispute. Workers for the Pullman Palace car factory, as you say, a rail car factory in Chicago, protesting the way that they were being treated by the company, rightly so in my judgment. I mean, it was not only a matter of wages being cut or people being laid off 'cause we were in the midst of a depression, but these are people living in company towns, a town owned by the Pullman Company whose water rates or rents are at levels nothing like what everybody else in the city of Chicago is paying because the company has that leverage over them. If you moved out of the company town, you were less likely to keep a job in the company. But this slowly grows into a dispute in which on the Pullman side you have basically the entirety of all the corporate interests in the American railroad industry, and on the labor side you get the entire sort of aborning labor movement. Because prior to this, the labor movements, particularly in rail, which is obviously a huge industry at this time, had always been broken up by craft, right? So every different job has its own union, and now you're seeing this moment where they're all starting to form one giant collective. And that conflict grows and then starts spreading out around the country to the point where you're talking about sympathy strikes everywhere. You're talking about commerce shutting down in significant parts of the country. And it's worth understanding the context that we're operating in in this moment. So this is right about 30 years after the end of the civil war, and there is a real concern in the country that this is the sequel. We're about to have another civil war. This one is gonna be fought on class lines rather than sectional lines. And this isn't just idle speculation or people letting their worse suspicions get away with them. Eugene Debs, who is leading on the labor side, says this, threatens this at one point. And I should note, he starts out much more temperate than this. But by the time the flames have really gone up, he says, "There's a war coming where 90% of the country is gonna be right against the other 10, and I would rather be on the side of the 90." But Cleveland is deeply disturbed by this, particularly when it gets to the point where there is violence, there is sabotage going on in Chicago with people who are trying to get the rail operations up and moving because there are significant parts of the country that aren't getting food. And so Cleveland sends in federal authorities, much to the chagrin of a lot of the Democratic Party, which is becoming increasingly pro-labor but is also still a federalist party that is blanching at the idea of the president of the United States sending federal troops into a sovereign state where the Democratic governor had said, "We don't want them. This is not welcome." And after that moment, once the strike is put down, he has never really thought of in the same esteem within the Democratic Party again, because this is a moment where the Democratic Party is getting more populous. And what do you have to show for your president? A guy who violated state sovereignty to put down a labor uprising on behalf of a railroad corporation.
Peter Robinson: All right, I'm going to indulge myself and ask one more because it's so glorious in some ways and so disappointing in some others. Clearly what takes place in the economy during his second term is the dominant feature of the second term in my judgment. And I would go so far as to say that you really can't understand what takes place in this country in the '20s, you actually can't understand the new deal without understanding-
Troy Senik: Entirely right.
Peter Robinson: How frightening it was for people to live through the events, the panic of '93, the Pullman Strike, and so forth. You can't understand what they're responding to in the '30s. It's not just the depression. The people in charge in the '30s could remember Grover Cleveland.
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: All right. Hawaii, "A Man of Iron", "It is an underappreciated feature of American history that much of the nation's territorial expansion owes to officials operating with near autonomy because of their distance from Washington," close quote. An American diplomat, thousands of miles from Washington, conspires with American business interests to take over Hawaii. Grover Cleveland says, "No, I don't think so." And then he writes, this is his message to Congress, I'm compressing several bits of it here, "It has been the boast of our government that it seeks to do justice in all things without regard to the strength or weakness of those with whom it deals. I mistake the American people if they favor the odious doctrine that there is one law for a strong nation and another for a weak one," close quote. So in this supposedly expansionist movement moment, when the United States is hell-bent on becoming a colonial power, the president of the United States says, "Not a chance. Not only do I object to that, but I object to the entire impulse. We don't push other nations around."
Troy Senik: Right?
Peter Robinson: And that beautiful passage that I just wrote, which may be Grover Cleveland's finest rhetorical moment, Troy says, you say this, "It was perhaps the rhetorical high-watermark of his entire eight years in office. And it was utterly inert." Okay, explain that.
Troy Senik: The Hawaii situation really gets dropped in his lap.
Peter Robinson: Explain it briefly.
Troy Senik: So this happens right before he comes back into office for the second term. This happens in the dying days of the Harrison administration, there's an investigation into what happens, and he comes to this conclusion that the United States has done wrong by the people of Hawaii. One of the only passages of his speeches that I quote at length in the book because it's kind of heartbreaking. It's beautiful. But you can tell that Grover Cleveland feels at this point that he maybe doesn't understand the country anymore because his conception of the United States as a country or the idea of violating the sovereignty of some tiny set of islands in the Pacific should be an anathema, should be repulsive. Why is it utterly inert? Well, partially it's a kind of diplomatic incompetence on behalf of the administration. So what happens is the monarchy is overthrown and this coalition of local business interest takes over in Hawaii, and-
Peter Robinson: Queen, pronounce her name.
Troy Senik: Queen Liliuokalani is the queen.
Peter Robinson: Lovely, I had no idea how to pronounce that one. Go ahead.
Troy Senik: And Cleveland, after having investigated the matter, comes to the conclusion, "We have to restore the status quo ante. That is the only morally justifiable positions. We have to undo all of this." She has to be put back on the throne, these guys have to be brought out of the royal palace, which they had occupied at that point, but the administration sends a diplomat there to accomplish these purposes, and he intervened solely with the queen. There's a series of interviews with the queen, which go very slowly and very badly. Because at the start they're just having to convince the queen that, "If we put you back on the throne, you can't behead all of them," which takes some convincing. And then after months and months of negotiations where they think they've gotten to a place where they finally worked out an accommodation with the queen, only then do they go to the government that is now sitting in Honolulu and say, "We think we've worked out an accommodation by which she can be restored to the throne." And the leadership in Hawaii says, "What role do you think you have here? We're not interested in the United States intervention." And at that point, there's nothing really Cleveland can do because he's on the wrong side of Congress on this. The Republicans want the expansion, some of the Democrats do too. So what's he gonna do? He can't declare war on them. So all you're left with in the end is this sort of elegy to a country that he thinks he's kind of losing. So it's beautiful, but sad because it accomplished, the only thing it accomplished was it staved off, the annexation of Hawaii does not happen until McKinley. So he bought them five years.
Peter Robinson: How it ends. "A Man of Iron", "Cleveland's second term, marred by economic depression and labor unrest precipitated, or at least accelerated, an historic realignment in American politics, away from his party." 1894 midterms, the last of his presidency, the Democrats lose 125 seats in the House of Representatives. That is the biggest defeat, still the biggest defeat in the House of Representatives in American history. Presidential election of 1896, Cleveland chooses not to run. The Democrats nominate William Jennings Bryan, in all kinds of ways a living repudiation of Cleveland, and Bryan loses in the landslide to William McKinley. So you were just describing the elegiac note in the life of Grover Cleveland, and there is this elegiac note in your book about him. You admire this man. And yet by the time he leaves office, he has been proven just demonstrably politically ineffective. He is yesterday's man, right?
Troy Senik: I think that's right in large measure.
Peter Robinson: And you love him because you love that country better than this one. That's unfair. But I wanna see how you handle it.
Troy Senik: What I appreciate about Grover Cleveland, I say this in the book, we are so used to, especially in this day and age, the politician who does all the things that are necessary to climb the greasy pole, right, finally gets to that position that he's shooting for and then you realize he doesn't know what he wants to do with it because there were no principles animating him along the way. He had mastered the low arts of politics, but he never figured out what politics was for. He never knew what it was that was driving this all along other than just raw ambition. And what I find so compelling about Cleveland is that he's sort of the opposite. Statesmanship is in him, in his marrow, it's just who he is. And that kind of all statesmanship all the time can actually be politically disadvantageous. There are a lot of concessions that you have to make along the way. There are a lot of times where you have to rise above your principles. Grover Cleveland is incapable of doing that. He can't engage in a million little lubrications that make political life possible. So is he the ideal portrait of a president? No, because you want somebody like Abraham Lincoln who operates at the nexus of these two things, who is animated by these strong principles, but really understands the game. And I don't suggest that Grover Cleveland is at the same level as Abraham Lincoln. He doesn't belong on Mount Rushmore. What I do suggest, though, is that we spend all this time studying a handful of great presidents and we don't do a very good job of sorting out the rest of them. And there are tiers within those groups. And he belongs in a higher one because I think if somebody is going to fail on many fronts as he does, although he has his successes, it does matter how they fail. It does matter that this was a man who took these losses because he believed in something. It does matter that on many of these losses he was proven later to be right. Now you can still ding him all you want, and I do, for the fact that he didn't know in that moment how to manage the politics of whatever particular issue, how to kick it down the road a few years, but there is something deeply American to me about this figure. As I say in the book, he is the kind of president that if you ask most Americans, put every face in your head out of it, just tell me in the abstract, "What do you want out of an American president?" And if you said, "Well, a self-made man from modest means who's doing it because he believes in a handful of discrete principles, and is thoroughly incorruptible, and never ends up sort of drinking his own bath water, never gets an elevated sense of himself from this; if anything, is always kind of standing outside of the political process, sees his job, is working for the American people, not as being a handmaiden for the legislative branch, not as being a visionary who is going to remake the country, that come pretty close to my ideal description, and I think for a lot of other people it would too. So a monumental figure amongst American presidents, not necessarily, but certainly one that is very much worth remembering.
Peter Robinson: Aside from Troy Senik, to whom is Grover Cleveland a hero? I served in the Reagan White House, and Ronald Reagan actually loved Calvin Coolidge. Who loved Grover Cleveland?
Troy Senik: In his era or today?
Peter Robinson: No, just name anybody aside from you. I don't recall that FDR ever said to Cleveland, "Now there was a man," or, "there was a president."
Troy Senik: You know, I was told the other day, and I haven't verified this, so treat it with the appropriate discount. I was told the other day that Harry Truman was actually a deep admirer-
Peter Robinson: That I could believe.
Troy Senik: Sort of makes sense. And Bill Clinton apparently had a modest obsession with him during his own presidency.
Peter Robinson: There is nothing modest about Bill Clinton's obsessions. All right, so I'm trying to get this, my reading of politicians is just so much cruder than yours. Anybody who goes this way when the country is going this way has failed as a politician, is sort of my crude first reading. But you have just moved me. So here we have a nation that he is born in one country, and then we have the civil war which changes the entire relationship of the federal government to the states and to the people, and then we have economic growth. During this man's lifetime we go from an overwhelmingly agrarian economy where the big innovation in trade is the Erie Canal, a ditch narrower than this studio that cuts across upstate New York, and by the time he becomes president the country is crisscrossed with railroad lines and there are shipyards building enormous steamers, and John D. Rockefeller has struck oil in Western Pennsylvania and built a company in Cleveland and moved to New York, it's a new country. And even as Cleveland, I'm sort of recapping what you said to see if I've got it, even as Cleveland begins to recognize that it has new problems, that he has to call Congress back into session, that maybe he has to use the office of the presidency in a somewhat more activist way than he would ever have considered doing in his first term-
Troy Senik: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Even as the old America attempts struggles and finds it difficult to come to grips with this new country that is aborning, it's all done honorably. That's what it comes to?
Troy Senik: I think that's the essence of it. Although it is worth noting that even in his own time he's a little bit yesterday's man, this already seems a little antique then, it's like the line, I can't remember who it comes from, the line you hear sometimes about Churchill is this, right, it's not just that he seems old-fashioned now, he seems old-fashioned in that era.
Peter Robinson: When he was 30 years old-
Troy Senik: And there's a little bit of that to Cleveland. So we talk about this restrained executive and this guy who gave one speech per campaign, but his rival wasn't doing that. You're seeing the rest of American politics already start to turn the corner into the 20th century and Cleveland is sort of the last holdout of the old one. I don't think he could be anything else, though, because there is nothing, and I don't mean this as an epithet, but there is nothing visionary about this man. He does not have an idea of how to recast American society. He doesn't think that's the job. He thinks the job is to be a bulwark for the American people. He is a defensive figure. He is there to keep the government from getting into your wallet, getting into your rights, that's the way he thinks of the job. The idea that he's going to restructure the entirety of the federal government never would've occurred to him.
Peter Robinson: Okay, last question. Clare Boothe Luce, do you remember her?
Troy Senik: I do.
Peter Robinson: You do. Clare Boothe-
Troy Senik: I was not anticipating her leading the last question, so I'm interested to see where this goes.
Peter Robinson: I'm going to act really aggressive, I'm going to ask for a really aggressive act of compression here.
Troy Senik: Okay.
Peter Robinson: She used to say that history had time to give even the greatest men only one sentence. Lincoln freed the slaves. Churchill saved Britain. What one sentence would you give to Grover Cleveland? Take as much time to think it over as you'd like because we can edit out the silence.
Troy Senik: I would use his last words on his deathbed in Princeton, New Jersey. "I have tried so hard to do right."
Peter Robinson: Mm, beautiful. Troy Senik, author of "A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland". Thank you.
Troy Senik: Thank you, Peter.
Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.