Grover Cleveland has all sorts of unusual distinctions among the Presidents. (No, he wasn’t “normal,” either.) He was one of several Presidents to drop a more prosaic first name for his less common middle one (like Grant, Wilson, and Eisenhower). He was the second biggest President at over 250 pounds, and had the largest collar size. Despite his reputation for being a tough guy, Grover ended a string of Civil War heroes elected President by being the only POTUS who had paid a poor man to take his place in the Union army. That was legal, but it was not especially admirable.
Cleveland was one of only two bachelors elected President, and was the only one married in the White House (to a 21-year old beauty, the Melania of her day, who was less than half his age). Grover also lost the Presidency when he ran for re-election despite winning the popular vote, in the most similar election (1888) to our last one. This set up his most famous distinction, serving split terms, as he came back to beat President Harrison in 1892.
My favorite Cleveland tale is how the President pulled off the amazing feat of having part of his jaw removed and replaced with a rubber prosthetic without the public learning about it, by secretly having the operation performed on a yacht.
Ah, but all of these pale compared to his central role in the worst scandal ever to strike in a Presidential campaign, which he survived, incredibly, by telling the truth.
Or so we have been told.
On July 21, 1884, a bit more than three months from the Presidential election, , the Republican Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke a story that seemed like it would determine who was to be President. Ten years earlier, a Buffalo woman named Maria Halpin had given birth to a son with the surname Cleveland, and then been taken to a mental asylum while the child was adopted by another family. The mother claimed that former Buffalo mayor and current New York Governor and Democratic Presidential nominee Grover Cleveland was the father.
In a remarkably quick display of candor, then or now, Cleveland admitted that indeed he and Halpin had been “illicitly acquainted,” and the son might indeed be his. As the only unmarried man among several Cleveland friends who, the campaign implied, may have “known” the woman, Cleveland had claimed paternity and helped Halpin place the boy with a caring family. Still, this was the Victorian era, and the clergy, in particular, was disgusted. “It seems to me that a leading question ought to be: do the American people want a common libertine for their president?” wrote a preacher from Buffalo to the editor of the Chicago Tribune.
While Cleveland, whose nickname was “Grover the Good,” had sex problems, Maine Senator James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, had been caught taking bribes. Why he was nominated with such a record of dishonesty and influence peddling, I will never understand. (No modern political party would do something that stupid, fortunately.) being able to use the catchy mocking anti-Cleveland chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” was a godsend for the struggling Blaine campaign.
To make things worse for Grover, reporters tracked down Halpin, and her version of the relationship differed from the candidate’s in unpleasant ways. Days from the election, the Chicago Tribune quoted her as saying, darkly, “The circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public.”