I left the desert of Arizona for the water of Florida, lots of water and a softer air. Left behind was the adventure of the border with stalwart ranchers up against drug cartels that are running Mexico and poisoning us.
I settled in the area of Stuart, a coastal town that manages to preserve much of old Florida, distinctive homes and stores that may date back to the early 1900’s and cannot have more than four stories in contrast to the high-rise glitz on the rest of the Atlantic coast. That’s the way its citizens like it, and they’re determined to keep it that way.
Into this modest town in 1900 came a modest ex-President, Grover Cleveland, who no doubt preferred fishing to the burdens of the White House and found all he could catch in the waters of Stuart. Conventional historians who would probably not be at home in Stuart give Cleveland an “average” rating as President. Not big on vision or ideology, he didn’t make waves; that is, no wars which generally elevate Presidents to the “great” category. In fact, as a young man during the Civil War, he paid for a replacement in the Union army, which was permissible.
Hard-working with a gift for reconciling disputes and solving problems, he rose from sheriff of hard-bitten Buffalo to mayor of the city to governor of New York State, and then became the first Democrat elected to the Presidency since the Civil war. Democrats were held responsible in part for the Southern secession, but in 1884 moderate Cleveland was acceptable. He also became the only President to be defeated and then reelected four years later. Departing the White House after the first term, his wife Frances asked the staff to keep things tidy because we’ll be back.
Considered a reformer, Cleveland battled rampant corruption in government and business and tried to thread his way through the sometimes violent clashes between the industrial titans and the growing labor movement. He was not unscathed. South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman compared him to Judas – Hitler was not available – and threatened to prod a pitchfork into his fat ribs. Hence, “Pitchfork” Ben.
Cleveland stood aside from the expansionist vision gripping the upper classes of his time. Senator Albert Beveridge said the U.S. must seize other lands to “lead to the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.” To which Cleveland replied: “The mission of our nation is to build up and make a greater country out of what we have instead of annexing islands.” He thwarted a major project of the imperialists to annex Hawaii.
Summing up, historian Allan Nevins writes that Cleveland “possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence and common sense. It is as a man of character that Cleveland will live in memory.” Not bad. Of how many other Presidents can that be said, and does it serve as a model?
Pressed to write his autobiography, Cleveland instead published “Fishing and Shooting Sketches,” in which he extolled outdoor life as a needed relief from the “wearing labors and perplexities of official duty.” He purchased some land on the Stuart waterfront and was thinking of retiring there, but he died in 1908 before he could. Still it can be said that his was a life of sufficient fish and honestly wielded power.