Author: teve Weinberg
Stephen Grover Cleveland, born in 1837, would become one of the most unusual U.S. presidents, in multiple ways. Living in the east, he planned to make his way to the boomtown of Cleveland, in 1854, seeking riches. His prospects looked good, given the influence of his distant relative, Moses Cleaveland, often credited with founding the city.
The young man never made it past Buffalo, N.Y., however, where an uncle made him an employment offer. The rest of his life, Grover Cleveland (he dropped Stephen in favor of his middle name) would be bound up in New York state politics, except when he spent two nonconsecutive terms in the White House, 1885-1889 and 1893-1897.
Matthew Algeo, a historian and radio journalist, focuses on a dramatic, little-known event in his new book, “The President Is a Sick Man.” Algeo, a strong writer, nevertheless saddles his work with a ponderous subtitle “Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth.”
Suffering from mouth cancer in 1893, Cleveland disappeared to undergo surgery on the yacht of a friend. The president, his doctors and political advisers feared that news might exacerbate a financial recession and trigger panic.
Cleveland’s popular wife, Frances, young enough to be his daughter, lied to journalists about the president’s whereabouts. Cleveland’s press aide lied, too. Reporters accepted the falsehoods, misleading the citizenry into believing the nation’s leader vanished for five days to undergo dental work — painful, to be sure, but rarely fatal.
The truth did not begin to leak until about two months later. E.J. Edwards broke the story in The Philadelphia Press, only to be vilified as a spinner of falsehoods by a rival Philadelphia newspaperman, Alexander McClure of The Philadelphia Times, who convinced a lot of readers that President Cleveland had been treated shabbily.
Proud of his reporting and his skepticism, Edwards felt stung.
In this fascinating, rarely acknowledged saga, Edwards’ reputation would not be restored until 1917, when W.W. Keen, one of the physicians aboard the yacht, decided to set history straight. He wrote a compelling, credible account in the widely circulated Saturday Evening Post magazine. As Algeo notes, Edwards was able to bask in the glow of vindication for seven years, until his death during 1924.
Cleveland had emphasized truth-telling during his presidencies, so the secrecy and unfair attacks on Edwards sullied the president’s reputation. Algeo is a first-rate researcher and offers readers context aplenty, perhaps none so relevant today as the perception of cancer in the celebrity political realm.
“The public’s perception of cancer has changed dramatically since 1893,” Algeo notes. “No longer is the word itself avoided in polite company. Nor is cancer considered an automatic death sentence. But the disease has not been conquered, and in some ways it remains the same ‘dread and mysterious enemy’ that E.J. Edwards wrote of in his story about the secret operation on Grover Cleveland.”
1. Steve Weinberg is a biographer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Columbia, Mo.