Tag Archives: President Grover Cleveland

Encore! Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

It’s President’s Day, and I see that it has been five years since the most popular Ethics Alarms President’s Day post was published. That one, from 2011, reminds us of the ethics wisdom and leadership acumen of the remarkable men who have served their country in the most challenging, difficult, and ethically complicated of all jobs, the U.S. Presidency.

In the middle of a campaign season littered with some disturbingly unethical candidates, it seems especially appropriate to re-post that entry now….with some updates. In 2011, I left out three Presidents, including the current one. Now all are represented, most of them well.

So…

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States of America:

 

George Washington: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”

John Adams: “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.” 

Thomas Jefferson: “On great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of law, when the public preservation requires it; his motives will be a justification…”

James Madison: “No government any more than any individual will long be respected without being truly respectable.”

James Monroe: “The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.”

John Quincy Adams: “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

Andrew Jackson: “One man with courage makes a majority.”   (Attributed)

Martin Van Buren: “No evil can result from its inhibition more pernicious than its toleration.”

William Henry Harrison: “There is nothing more corrupting, nothing more destructive of the noblest and finest feelings of our nature, than the exercise of unlimited power.” Continue reading

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A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 3): When The Going Got Tough

 presidents.

The Presidents really get interesting now, as a political leadership culture in the U.S. matures, the stakes of failure become greater, and technology, labor upheaval, expanding big business and greater influence on world affairs transforms the Presidency into truly the toughest job on earth.

Grover Cleveland

grover

Another one of my favorites, Cleveland was known for telling the truth ( he as called “Grover the Good”), but he participated in one of the most elaborate deceptions in Presidential history.

As explained in historian Matthew Algeo’s 2011 book, “The President Is a Sick Man,”  President Cleveland noticed an odd bump on the roof of his mouth in the summer of 1893, shortly after he took office for the second time. (Cleveland is the only President with split terms, the hapless Republican Benjamin Harrison winning an electoral college victory that gave him four years as the bland filling in a Cleveland sandwich.) The bump was diagnosed as a life-threatening malignant tumor, and the remedy was removal. Cleveland believed that news of his diagnosis would send Wall Street and the country  into a panic at a time when the economy was sliding into a depression anyway, and agreed to an ambitious and dangerous plan to have the surgery done in secret. The plan was for the President to announce he was taking a friend’s yacht on a four-day fishing trip from New York to his summer home in Cape Cod. Unknown to the press and the public was that the yacht had been transformed into a floating operating room, and a team of six surgeons were assembled and waiting.

The 90 minute procedure employed ether as the anesthesia, and the doctors removed the tumor, five teeth and a large part of the President’s upper left jawbone, all at sea. They also managed to extract the tumor through the President’s mouth while leaving no visible scar and without altering Cleveland’s walrus mustache. Talking on NPR in 2011, historian said,

“I talked to a couple of oral surgeons researching the book, and they still marvel at this operation: that they were able to do this on a moving boat; that they did it very quickly. A similar operation today would take several hours; they did it in 90 minutes.”

But the operation was a success. An artificial partial upper jaw made of rubber was installed to replace the missing bone, and Cleveland, who had the constitution of a moose, reappeared after four days looking hardy and most incredible of all, able to speak as clearly as ever. How did he heal so fast? Why wasn’t his speech effected? He endures doctors cutting out a large chuck of his mouth using 19th century surgical techniques and is back on the job in less than a week? No wonder nobody suspected the truth.

Then, two months later, Philadelphia Press reporter E.J. Edwards published a story about the surgery, thanks to one of the doctors anonymously breaching doctor-patient confidentiality. Cleveland, who in his first campaign for the White House had dealt with Republican accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child by publicly admitting it, flatly denied Edwards’ story, and his aides  launched a campaign to discredit the reporter. Grover the Good never lies, thought the public, so Edwards ended up where Brian Williams is now. His career and credibility were ruined.

Nobody outside of the participants knew about the operation and the President’s fake jaw until twenty-four years later, after all the other principals were dead except three witnesses.  One of the surgeons decided to  publish an article to prove that E.J. Edwards had been telling the truth after all.

This is a great ethics problem. Was it ethical for Cleveland to keep his health issues from the public? In this case, yes, I’d say so. Was it unethical for the doctor to break his ethical duty? Of course. Was Edwards ethical to report the story? Sure.

The tough question is: Was Cleveland ethical to deny the story and undermine the reporter’s credibility? I think it was a valid utilitarian move, and barely ethical: it was better for the nation to distrust one reporter than the President, especially when his secret was one he responsibly withheld, and his doctor unethically revealed. Continue reading

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Ethics Hero Emeritus: Reubin Askew ( 1928-2014)

Askew

In a better United States where only character, demonstrated skill, experience and leadership ability were necessary to become President, Reubin Askew would have been one. Unfortunately looks, luck, money and timing are important too. Askew had the looks, all right; he just missed the other three.

Never mind. Reubin Askew, who died yesterday, did all right.

His father was an alcoholic, and soon his mother had divorced him and was supporting Reubin and his five siblings as a single mother in Pensacola, Florida. She worked as a waitress, seamstress and hotel maid, while Reubin shined shoes, bagged groceries, delivered newspapers and sold his mother’s homemade pies door to door to do his part to support the family. After graduating from high school in Pensacola,  Askew served two years in the Army and, thanks to the G.I. Bill, graduated from Florida State in Tallahassee, where he was elected student body president. He was an Air Force officer during the Korean War, and in 1956 graduated from the University of Florida law school. That same year he joined a Pensacola law firm, and married Donna Lou Harper, who remained his wife for 57 years, until he died.

Askew ran for Florida’s House of Representatives in 1958, and won. After four years in the House, and eight more as a state senator, he ran for governor.  He was already nicknamed  “Reubin the Good,” and his opponent, Republican Claude Kirk, ridiculed the well-publicized fact that Askew, a devout Christian, never drank, smoked or used curse words by referring to him as a “mama’s boy,” not tough enough for high office. Askew’s rebuttal: “I love my mama.”  He won easily. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Heroes, Government & Politics, History, Leadership, Race

Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

In commemoration of President’s Day, Ethics Alarms presents the ethics wisdom of the remarkable men who have served their country in the most challenging, difficult, and ethically complicated of all jobs, the U.S. Presidency.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States:

George Washington: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” Continue reading

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Rahm Emanuel, History and Hyperbole Ethics

There are times when obvious exaggeration is nothing worse than politeness, nothing more than an expression of admiration and affection. “You’re the best boss anyone ever had,” is in this category, especially when the boss is retiring or dying. But when one is speaking in public about controversial and historical matters involving well-known public figures, the margin between excusable hyperbole and unethical dishonesty or worse is much smaller. Al Gore learned this when he played loyal Vice-President on the day his President was impeached by vote of the House of Representatives. Gore’s statement that Bill Clinton was “a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest Presidents” was intended as supportive, but interpreted as a toadying endorsement of Clinton’s unsavory and dishonest conduct, impeachable or not. It probably cost Gore the Presidency.

Worse yet was Trent Lott’s clumsy effort to praise the ancient, infirm and mentally failing Sen. Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party. Lott said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have all these problems over all these years, either.” Thurmond, running on the Dixiecrat ticket, had opposed segregation, and Lott’s comment, less fact than flattery, made him sound like he longed for the days of Jim Crow and “white only”rest rooms. The lessons of these hyperbolic gaffes are similar: if the well-intentioned compliment concerns a public figure in historical context, historical exaggerations either appear to be unjust to history or its important figures, seem to make inappropriate value judgments, or come off as a blatant effort to mislead the public.

Rahm Emanuel hit the Trifecta with his fawning farewell to President Obama, as he left the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago. Obama, he said, is “the toughest leader any country could ask for, in the toughest times any president has ever faced.”

Wow. Continue reading

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Filed under Citizenship, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, History, Leadership, Professions, Research and Scholarship, U.S. Society, War and the Military

F.D.R.’s Irresponsible Deception

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reputation is at an all-time high these days, thanks to reflections on his handling of  The Great Depression prompted by our current financial mess. But looking at F.D.R.’s record  risks ethics whiplash, as a new book again reminds us.  Continue reading

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