Every year, a delegation from Hawaii arrives at City Hall . They are here to see Grover Cleveland.
They come because Cleveland, who served as Erie County sheriff, mayor of Buffalo, governor of New York, and finally the nation’s president, is a hero to Hawaiians. In 1893, while he was in the White House, Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by the proponents of a Republic of Hawaii. Cleveland, a friend of the queen, tried to save the monarchy.
His effort was not successful. But Hawaii has never forgotten Cleveland’s chivalry. They gather around his statue and drape leis around his neck.
“They revere his memory out there,” said George Cleveland, the president’s 61-year-old grandson. “Hawaiians have a beautiful way of celebrating the entire family. I’ve been there on behalf of my family, to talk about it. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Hawaiians, it seems, know Grover Cleveland better than Buffalo does.
There are so many colorful details about him. He was the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. He was the only president to have a White House wedding. And do we have any other president to thank for a candy bar? The Baby Ruth, its makers said, was named for Cleveland’s daughter Ruth.
Cleveland cut his teeth in Buffalo, as his grandson puts it. And yet here, he is a mystery. Not an alluring one , either: Lauren Belfer, in her best-selling novel “City of Light,” imagined him as a seedy, lecherous rapist.
That portrayal seems to have been sparked by a sex scandal that hit Cleveland in the presidential election of 1884. Cleveland, a bachelor, was accused of having fathered an illegitimate child years before.
“Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” chanted the supporters of Cleveland’s Republican opponent, James Blaine. Cleveland, though, turned things around. He calmly took responsibility, and told his team simply to tell the truth. The public admired his candor, and he won the election. “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” had a new answer: “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
Surely the man who prevailed in what has been called history’s dirtiest presidential election deserves respect. Especially here in Buffalo.
Cleveland was not born here but he was a Buffalonian, in the best sense of the word.
He had not planned to settle here. “He was headed out west,” said his grandson, speaking on the phone from his home in New Hampshire. “And he stopped to see his Uncle Allen, of Allentown fame, on Grand Island. His uncle had a big farm. Cleveland ended up working for him, and that’s how he ended up staying in Buffalo. And he just loved Buffalo. He didn’t want to leave. He started studying for the law, getting involved with politics, hanging out in bars.”
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland later joined the Buffalo Club but always preferred saloons. He was against the temperance movement, which endeared him to many Buffalonians. He loved hunting and fishing. In Buffalo, he gained 100 pounds because of his love for German food.
He was so “portly” – to use the 19th century word his grandson prefers – that his nieces and nephews called him Uncle Jumbo, after the circus elephant, then a major celebrity. Public office was not his idea. He had to be persuaded to run for Erie County sheriff, which launched his career. His honesty and intolerance for corruption led to his political rise.
President Cleveland startled the nation when, at 49, he wed 21-year-old Frances Folsom, who had grown up on Edward Street, the daughter of his law partner. Frances became the most beloved first lady since Dolley Madison.
Cleveland, for his part, was popular too. He retained informal Buffalo habits, answering the White House phone and doorbell himself. Buffalo lawyer and political activist James Ostrowski, who has been trying off and on for several years to establish the Grover Cleveland Presidential Library in Buffalo, admires him for his hands-off governing.
“You leave people free to do their own thing and solve their own problems,” he said. “That’s how America was from 1605 to 1914. You’ve got your own vision. You run your own life.”
Like many Buffalonians, Cleveland was frugal. As Erie County sheriff, he personally hanged two criminals, operating the gallows himself because no one else was around to take on the unpleasant task – and, besides, it saved money.
In the White House, he continued to economize. He accepted the Statue of Liberty from the French – but the matter was complicated because earlier, he had vetoed spending $50,000 on the statue’s pedestal.
“He didn’t think the taxpayers should have to pay for it,” George Cleveland said. The problem was solved when Joseph Pulitzer launched the well-known campaign to get children to save pennies.
Transparency, honesty, Buffalo ways – what is the problem here? Why is Cleveland forgotten – or, worse, vilified in a best-selling book?
Asked about “City of Light,” George Cleveland said some of his family members were upset and offended. His own statement, though, was so restrained that it would do his grandfather proud.
“Miss Belfer is a very talented writer. It is a work of fiction. She did take certain liberties,” he said. “There was one scene that sounded like the Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers incident inserted into Gilded Age Buffalo.”
It seems that certain aspects of Cleveland, in addition to the sex scandal, have made him fair game.
He had that girth. (“He was portly,” George Cleveland corrects.) He opposed women’s suffrage. Labor activists blame him for sending in the military to end the big Pullman train strike of 1894. (Later, as an olive branch, Cleveland and Congress instituted Labor Day.)
In addition, Cleveland was the kind of laissez-faire president many now find difficult to understand. He was far more likely to veto things than to promote things. In general, he did not see it as his place to dictate the country’s course.
“Cleveland was ... if you will, he was a victim of the second half of the 19th century,” said Joseph Golombek, who is a member of the Buffalo Common Council and teaches history at SUNY Buffalo State. “It was a different world. You could be a conservative in the Democratic Party. And people forget that it was a much more conservative world.”
In his 1934 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage,” Allen Nevins argued that Cleveland’s greatness lay in a supersized portion of everyday virtues.
“He had no endowments that thousands of men do not have. He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But he possessed them to a degree other men do not.”
Cleveland also possessed another fine quality – one that occurs to Golombek whenever he passes the portly president’s statue.“How can you not like a guy who drank beer at Ulrich’s?” Golombek said. “That, to me, is a Buffalo guy.”