Four years on the Wasilla city council. Six years as mayor. Two years as Alaska governor. The rap on Sarah Palin is that her government service resumé is a pretty thin calling card to bring to the office of Vice President of the United States.
But consider this: One of America’s best presidents — presidents, not just vice presidents, mind you — had an even slimmer calling card, at least on paper. He was a one-term sheriff of Erie County, New York. Years later, he served a single year as mayor of Buffalo before being elected governor of New York. He hadn’t even reached the second anniversary of taking that office when he was elected the nation’s chief executive. His name was Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland’s thin resume still bested that of Chester Arthur, his immediate predecessor. Arthur never held an office higher than head of the customs office for the Port of New York before becoming vice president on a ticket with James Garfield and then president upon Garfield’s assassination six months later. Arthur was widely expected to flop but turned in a decent performance as a competent reformer.
Grover Cleveland proved an exceptional president not because of the experience he brought to the federal government but because of two things that matter much more — character and principles. Commentator and satirist H. L. Mencken ate politicians for breakfast but he reserved praise for Grover in an essay entitled “A Good Man in a Bad Trade.”
It may be news to those who worship the state and its wondrous but empty promises but government is not rocket science. Indeed, the closest thing America came in the last century to having a rocket scientist in the White House was Jimmy Carter, who completed a non-credit introductory course in nuclear reactor power at tiny Union College in 1953. Many words have been said about his four years as president but “fondly remembered” are not among them. At last count, the houses Jimmy has built for Habitat for Humanity are a few million short of the number never built because of his 20-percent-plus interest rates.
To best appreciate Cleveland one must recognize a cornerstone of his character. Honesty was his only policy. It was the prism through which he saw the world and conducted his public life. He was known in his day as one of the most honest men alive. When Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World endorsed him for the nation’s highest office in 1884, he declared four reasons to vote for him: “1. He’s an honest man. 2. He’s an honest man. 3. He’s an honest man. 4. He’s an honest man.”
He didn’t shmooze and slither his way to political power through smoky backrooms; nor did he exercise power as if he loved it for its own sake. He never plagiarized a speech and he never flip-flopped to get a vote.
As the son of a stern Presbyterian minister, Cleveland was raised to always say what he meant and mean what he said. He did not lust for political office and never felt he had to cut corners or equivocate to get elected. He was so forthright and plainspoken that he makes Harry Truman seem indecisive. His Pulitzer Prize—winning biographer Allan Nevins summed him up this way: “His honesty was of the undeviating type which never compromised an inch; his courage was immense, rugged, unconquerable; his independence was elemental and self-assertive. . . . Under storms that would have bent any man of lesser strength he ploughed straight forward, never flinching, always following the path that his conscience approved to the end.”
Cleveland was a no-nonsense man. He saw attempts to secure special favors, privileges or subsidies from government as fundamentally dishonest. He opposed high tariffs not because he was a learned economist (he had no formal training in economics) but because he saw them as cynical abuses of the political process by the politically well-connected. Because he didn’t accept the notion that government and its purse should be up for grabs by the mob, he vetoed twice as many bills as all previous 21 presidents combined.
Cleveland even broke with the old practice of bloating the federal bureaucracy with political cronies. He maintained the highest standards in choosing the people who served around him, making appointments only when necessary and then, only of people whose character and qualifications were beyond reproach. The White House during his tenure was scandal-free, a model of propriety for the rest of the country.
In so many ways, Cleveland was a political oddity even for the Victorian times in which he served. Time and again he refused to do what was politically expedient. As another Cleveland biographer, Alyn Brodsky puts it, “Here, indeed, was that rarest of political animals: one who believed his ultimate allegiance was to the nation, not to the party.”
Honesty was the source of Grover Cleveland’s political convictions. It was dishonest, he felt, for the government to spend more than it had and send its bills to future generations. So he always worked to produce a balanced budget. He even felt it was dishonest for government to run a large surplus — “ruthless extortion,” he called it — because it was a sign that government had taken more from the people than it needed. And it was dishonest, he felt, for government to think it could spend money better than the people who first earned it.
Cleveland’s principles were defined by his character. Both were right and solid and served the country well.
America’s 22nd and 24th president is an example we might remember as we ponder whether Sarah Palin’s credentials are up to snuff. Resumés can be woefully inadequate and misleading unless and until a person’s principles and character are taken into account.