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The 45 men who have served as U.S. president … what a cast of characters! They range in quality from a war hero whose troops wanted to make him king to a TV personality/real estate wheeler-dealer who’d like to make himself king.
The latter, Republican Donald Trump, leads the pack in one category — audacity. In December 2019, with his first impeachment bearing down, he called himself “the greatest of all presidents.” He did concede that Abraham Lincoln approached Trumpian stature.
It’s time for comparison — not with those in the presidential pantheon but rather plug-along Democrat Grover Cleveland, whose unique non-consecutive terms Trump would like to match. By winning the presidency in 1884, losing in 1888 and winning again in 1892, Cleveland counts as the 22nd and 24th presidents. If Trump, a re-election loser in 2020 (his volcanic protest notwithstanding), returns to the White House in 2025, he will have become presidents No. 45 and 47.
Such a comeback may seem improbable, but Trump continues as a Republican Party leader. So the Trump-Cleveland comparison is apt, though communications in the two eras were vastly different. Cleveland left office a half century before the advent of commercial TV and a full century before Fox News. Here are a few intriguing categories.
Health: Those were big guys. Cleveland was at 5-11, 250 pounds and up (second only to 300-pound-plus William Howard Taft). In 2020, Trump was 6-3, 244 pounds (officially?). Both long-lived. Cleveland dead at 71 but 25 years above the male life expectancy in those days. Trump, 76 on June 14, right at life expectancy and still apparently going strong. But close friend Rev. Franklin Graham says he fears Trump’s health is too poor to allow a campaign in 2024.
Military service: Both escaped. The young Cleveland paid a man $300 to serve in his stead during the Civil War. (Legal back then; the substitute survived.)
The youthful Trump avoided Vietnam era service by means of draft deferments and bone spurs (mystery afoot there).
Sexual misconduct: Cleveland, a bachelor in his salad days, was accused by a woman of fathering her son 10 years before seeking the presidency.
Thrice-married Trump was accused of assault or unwelcome advances by 24 women.
Cleveland acknowledged possible paternity, while saying the biological father was most likely his law partner. (That was a century before introduction of forensic DNA testing.) His honesty defused the 1884 election.
Trump denied all, despite being caught on audio tape bragging about using his “star power” in grabbing women by their genitals. He called one of his accusers “not my type.”
Personality: Cleveland, a goals-oriented lawyer (mayor of Buffalo NY and state governor) was stern and businesslike by day, jovial and beer-guzzling by night. Trump is outgoing but self-absorbed, domineering and vengeful. A playground bully who never grew up, he goes on and on about the importance of getting even.
Truthfulness: Cleveland startled observers with his honesty. In one instance, though, he resorted to unprecedented secrecy. Afflicted in his second term with a cancerous tumor in his mouth, he boarded a yacht, ostensibly for a pleasure cruise, and had four physicians successfully remove the growth. The surgery remained a secret for 17 years — two years after Cleveland’s death.
Trump’s lies are legend. Friends write them off as hyperbole — harmless exaggerations — though his “Big Lie” denying the 2020 vote outcome and triggering the Jan. 6 coup attempt are proving convulsive. Meantime, his shady financial dealings have left him suspected of tax and real estate fraud. Criminal investigations are underway in New York, along with probes of postelection shenanigans in Washington, D.C. and Georgia.
Unlike all predecessors, Trump refused to make public his income tax payments. Republicans were OK with that.
Attitude toward women: Cleveland displayed knightly virtues, but as a man of his times, wrote in 1905, “Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” Trump’s misogyny is well documented. Yet he won white women’s continued support.
Tolerance toward the marginalized: Cleveland vetoed anti-immigration legislation, though he later approved the Chinese Exclusion Act. He was convinced that Chinese and U.S. cultures clashed too much to allow assimilation. Trump launched his political career with his “Obama not a U.S. citizen” canard and hasn’t let up since. He wanted Muslims banned from entering the country. It has white nationalists smiling.
Campaign platforms: Cleveland’s main thrust was lowering tariffs. Trump’s was lowering taxes (mainly for the rich) and approving for the Supreme Court any candidate supplied by the Federalist Society. Republicans registered their approval in 2020 by adopting no platform except four more years of Trump.
Presidential power: Alarmed at Congress’ strength, Cleveland worked successfully in beefing up White House muscle. Trump insisted the president can do anything he wants.
Presidential appointments: Cleveland entered office determined to end patronage (the spoils system). He vowed not to fire any Republican who was doing his job well. Trump made his daughter and son-in-law top advisers.
First ladies’ reactions: While Cleveland wasn’t happy about his 1888 re-election failure, the most notable reaction came from wife Frances, who at 21 had married the 49-year-old president. She told White House personnel not to change too much because they’d be back in four years. Melania Trump? Upon learning of her husband’s victory in 2016, she wept, but not tears of joy.
Political intensity: In 1892, Cleveland set out to defeat the man who had beaten him in 1888, President Benjamin Harrison. When Harrison’s wife, Caroline, died of tuberculosis two weeks before the election, Harrison shut down his campaign. Out of respect, Cleveland did the same.
Imagine such grace marking an election today.
Place among the presidents, 1789-2021: Historians rate Cleveland as average. Despite his claim of unmatched greatness and his loathing of “losers,” Trump thus far sits at the bottom with two presidents who did little to forestall the Civil War — Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan — along with Andrew Johnson, who obstructed Republican postwar Reconstruction, and scandal-ridden Warren G. Harding.
Presidential election trifectas: In sports parlance, Cleveland went 3 for 3 in winning the popular vote. At 0 for 2 so far, Trump sure can’t call that “the greatest.”
Jerry Elsea is retired after 40 years with The Gazette, the last 15 as opinion page editor.