Each year instead of the usual Christmas card, my friend Diana Bannister sends out the official White House Christmas tree ornament. Despite our treelessness, we always look forward to getting them, and hanging them from a sconce. This year, the White House ornament features a sepia-toned scene of the wedding of Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom. That was the very first White House wedding, in 1886.
I am going out on a limb here and presuming that Laura Bush chose the scene on the 2007 ornament. I suspect that it foreshadows a White House wedding to come for the engaged Jenna.
While there have been several White House weddings for presidential daughters, Grover Cleveland’s was the only wedding of a president himself. He was, at the time an “imposing” bachelor of 49, “just under 6 feet tall, and almost 300 lbs.” Frances, a lovely young woman of 21, had been Cleveland’s ward since the age of 12, when her father, who was Cleveland’s law partner, died. In the accompanying booklet, the White House Historical Association tells us that “the public was captivated.” (Not so clear what we would make of that today.)
The booklet also makes an interesting point about candidate Cleveland and his refusal to deny paternity of the child of a young widow. (That resulted in the famous campaign ditty, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha! ha! ha!) It claims that he “was likely covering for his married partner.” If true that was not known at the time (but noble).
The 1884 election had pitted Democrat Cleveland, then governor of New York, against Republican James Blaine, Senator from Maine. Cleveland was a reformer who had little tolerance for the patronage job system, pork-barrel legislation, private bills, and incipient welfare-statism common at the time under Republicans who had been in power since the Civil War. Blaine, a man said to be of great private virtue and what we would call “family values,” had profited from extensive selling of political favors. I vaguely recall the Democratic response to claims of Blaine’s superior personal virtue as something like “He should be returned to the private life for which he is so well suited.”
We can all draw what lessons we will from that contest of political effectiveness and philandering against the publicly corrupt man with high personal standards of religion and marital fidelity — while we await announcement of the wedding to come.