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Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2000 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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Consumer Reports

Try the Cleveland model -- EARLIER, this column looked at the Nixon-Kennedy contest of 1960, noting that it sheds some light on America's current hair-raiser of an election. Since then though your author has uncovered an even better historical example.

It is that of the mighty "Beast of Buffalo", Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland, a free-trading New York Democrat, was elected president in 1884, and served from 1885 to 1889. He sought reelection in 1888, but lost to the protectionist Republican Benjamin Harrison in a bitter fight over tariffs. (Harrison charged that Cleveland committed the unpardonable sin of loving British ways more than American ones, and that Cleveland attempted "to fasten upon this country the British policy of free foreign trade".) In 1892 Cleveland roared back, ousting Harrison.

The career conundrums of "Grover the Good" resemble those faced by Messrs Gore and Bush, and even by President Clinton, in a number of ways. Indeed, several new books and articles provide Cleveland arcana sufficient to assemble a Cleveland primer for candidates and presidents.* Herewith a few Cleveland lessons:

Follow the existing laws. Asked why he had not been reelected in 1888, Cleveland said, graciously, "It was mainly because the other party had the most votes." The "votes" to which Cleveland was referring were electoral college votes. In the electoral college, his opponent, Benjamin Harrison, maintained a 233-168 lead.

Cleveland for his part had won the popular vote by a margin of something like 100,000. In other words, a situation very similar to Al Gore's today.

Rather than call up an army of attorneys, a la Gore, Cleveland retreated with finality, saying that "it is better to be defeated battling for honest principle than to win by cowardly subterfuge".

This behaviour stood Cleveland in good stead. Four years later, a respectful public helped the New Yorker to unseat Harrison. Cleveland's stance also did much for his party. He strong victory swept so many Democrats in with him in 1892 that the party gained something it hadn't had since the Civil War, control of both Houses of Congress.

If you're honest about your private life, it can't hurt you. The news that Cleveland had an illegitimate son, Oscar, emerged during his first campaign, when the Buffalo Evening Telegraph published the headline: "A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man's History; The Pitiful Story of Maria Halpin and Grover Cleveland's Son".

Cleveland instantly acknowledged his son, saying "above all, tell the truth". The revelation did not prevent Cleveland's victory-or, oddly, even ruin his reputation as a moral man. After he won, Democrats shouted: "Hurray for Maria! Hurray for the Kid! I voted for Cleveland and I'm Damned Glad I did!"

This may explain why the "November Surprise" of Gov Bush's drunk driving experience in Maine did not necessarily spoil his presidential chances. It also suggests that President Clinton's first 1992 campaign, which featured Gennifer Flowers, may have done as well as it did because President Clinton as much as admitted his affair with her.

Take a strong stand on issues and the public may come around - eventually. Cleveland fought hard for free trade, saying to his supporters, "What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?"

His opponents, led by New England and Midwestern manufacturers and the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker, supplied Harrison with a war chest enormous enough to enable him to upset Cleveland.

Then though, according to historian Paul Boller, Carnegie Steel slashed wages even as protectionist law helped it to take extra profits. An irate population perceived tariffs' shortcomings, and returned Cleveland to power.

This last story suggests that the American winner, whoever he is, would do well to stick to his ideals, however poorly they do in focus groups. A challenge harder than just about any for the modern politician.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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