Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tuesday Scandalrama: Grover Cleveland, Contemptible Libertine and Confessed Bastard-Maker

Cynical campaigns laden with personal attacks, unfair smears and base accusations are nothing new. When there’s a lot at stake, you’ll always find people eager to set common decency aside and lead right into the filthy muck of democracy. Take, for instance, the presidential race of 1884. This was smack-dab in the middle of the longest period of Republican dominance in our nation’s history, and they weren’t going to let Democrat Grover Cleveland break their lucky run. Especially not when they knew that, as a young man, Ol’ Rovin’ Grover had shacked up with a woman named Maria Halpin, who gave birth to his illegitimate child, a child he continued to support after his political career took off.

Republicans, apparently just as scolding and dishonest in that century as this one, tried their best to use this fact to impeach Cleveland’s character. The race was close and their candidate, Maine’s James Blaine, needed all the help he could get. Of course, Blaine himself had some 19th century sordidness in his past, as the Indianapolis Sentinel reported: “There is hardly an intelligent man in the country who has not heard that James G. Blaine betrayed the girl who he married, and then only married her at the muzzle of a shotgun...if, after despoiling her, he was too craven to refuse her legal redress, giving legitimacy to her child, until a loaded shotgun stimulated his conscience—then there is a blot on his character more foul, if possible, than any of the countless stains on his political record.”

Regardless of defenses like these, Cleveland himself hoped to stay above the fray. However, he had his work cut out from him. At rallies and speeches, Republicans would taunt him with cries of “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” By way of pooh-poohing his ambitions, the New York Sun wrote “We do not believe that the American people will knowingly elect to the Presidency a coarse debauchee who would bring his harlots with him to Washington.” Even more frenzied were the clergy, one of whom said “Investigations disclose still more proof of debaucheries too horrible to relate and too vile to be readily believed...For many years, days devoted to business have been followed by nights of sin. He has lived as a bachelor...lodged in rooms on the third floor in a business block, and made those rooms a harem, foraged outside, also, in the city and surrounding villages; champion libertine, an artful seducer, a foe to virtue, an enemy of the family, a snare to youth and hostile to true womanhood...”

Such rhetoric makes Grover Cleveland sound a whole lot cooler than he really was, but back then it probably worked like a charm. When it got down to the wire in the campaign, it looked like his alliance of Democrats and “Mugwumps”—reformist Republicans opposed to the corrupt Blaine—were headed for defeat. However, in the last week of the race, a New York preacher delivered a speech intended to castigate the apostate Mugwumps. In the course of it, he said “We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion...” The Cleveland campaign publicized the Blaine camp’s slur throughout heavily Catholic New York and, in the end, it was enough to sway that state---and with it the presidency---to the Democrats.

(Again, my main source for this article is Michael Farquhar’s wonderful A Treasury of Great American Scandals. Buy it. Buy it. Buy it.)