Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Grover Cleveland’s presidencies are known by the fact that he is the only president elected to the office twice in non-sequential terms. Beyond that, most Americans would be at a loss to provide any information. Alyn Brodsky’s Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character is only one of two biographies about the president to be published in 2000 to fill in the gap caused by the American education system.
Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character takes a close look at the president’s life from his beginnings until his death. Unfortunately, Brodsky’s focus generally is too close, looking more at Cleveland in isolation than in relation to the events of his time. This leaves Brodsky’s overall positive depiction of Cleveland as a moral man in a vacuum rather than a full-fledged individual. While Cleveland’s sense of duty is clearly defined, much of his agenda seems to be delineated in terms of his opposition.
The style wavers between an informal, almost conversational style, to one which relies on Brodksy’s extensive vocabulary. He frequently resorts to the use of superlatives when describing Cleveland and his wife, which serves to portray Cleveland as one of the best presidents the country as ever had. At the same time, Cleveland is shown surrounded by political enemies in both the opposition and his own party.
Brodsky never attempts to explain why Cleveland maintained such a close reliance on Richard Olney, his Attorney General and Secretary of State during his second term, after Olney led Cleveland into such debacles as the busting of the Pullman Strike or the arbitration between Britain and Venezuela. In fact, while Brodsky specifically states that Cleveland was careful to thoroughly research every issue, he attributes almost every case in which Cleveland acted against his own interests, for instance the Hawaiian issue, as ones in which Cleveland was duped by his underlings. This seems to counter Brodsky’s argument on Cleveland’s thoroughness.
While partisan in its acclaim for Cleveland, many of the man’s flaws are discussed openly, ranging from his inability to form coalitions to his rashness is sending off letters without looking for advice. At the same time, many of Cleveland’s strengths can also be seen as faults. The unswerving moral correctness Brodsky attributes to him meant that he was unable to compromise with either members of the opposition or his own party. While Brodsky sees this as one of his greatest traits, it can also be viewed as a limiting factor.
Because of the time in which Cleveland was President, much of the politics discussed is strange. The Democrats were still more socially conservative than the Republicans and the financial debates of bimetallism vs. monometallism created a fiscal debate which is completely unlike any discussion in modern politics. Almost invariably, Brodsky manages to paint Cleveland on the victorious side of the arguments, bolstering his depiction of Cleveland as a moral man.
While complete in many ways, and admitting to some faults on the part of Cleveland, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character does come across as a one-sided view. Brodsky makes Cleveland appear as a great President whose name should rank with Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington instead of the obscurity of Arthur, Harrison and McKinley, the Presidents whose administrations framed his. Brodsky leaves Cleveland’s legacy unexamined, when showing how Cleveland’s reputation has risen and fallen over the years may have added a noteworthy dimension to the study.
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