When one television talking head recently noted that Bill Clinton, by being elected to a second term as a Democrat, was following in the footsteps of Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, a colleague jocularly responded that Mr. Cleveland, at least, was not much of a role model.
He is certainly not a role model for students at one California high school named after him. According to Thomas Sowell, students at Cleveland High were surprised to learn that their school was named for a president: One young lady said, "I thought it was named for that city in Canada."
And Mr. Cleveland has not been a hero to generations of list-makers. He complicated sequential numbering of presidents by having the audacity to win election in 1884, lose in 1888, and win again in 1892. Students and the almanacs they consult never know whether to label Mr. Cleveland the 22nd president, or the 22nd and the 24th. What a bother!
But maybe the double numbering is appropriate, because "Grover the Good"-born 160 years ago on March 18, 1837-had gumption enough for two. A look at his life shows that he would be an ideal role model for President Clinton.
First, Mr. Cleveland did not twist Scripture, but let Scripture turn him.
Mr. Cleveland once explained that he had been "reared and taught in the strictest school of Presbyterianism," and that God's teaching was responsible for "every faculty of usefulness I possess, and every just apprehension of the duties and obligations of life." He recalled that memorization of the Shorter Catechism was hard, but, "those are not apt to be the worst citizens who were early taught, 'what is the chief end of man?'" (Answer: "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.")
Second, Mr. Cleveland as president believed not in a sugar daddy god, but in God who proclaims objective truth and challenges men to do their duty. After leaving office in 1897, Mr. Cleveland described his "consciousness of duty well and faithfully performed." He noted that he liked "popular applause" but found Bible-based satisfaction to be the kind that lasts. We should pray that Bill Clinton, no longer campaigning, may start paying attention to the only vote that matters: God's.
Third, Mr. Cleveland knew he was a sinner, and publicly acknowledged his responsibility for fathering an illegitimate child 10 years before he ran for president. He paid child support and then arranged for his son to be adopted by a western New York couple, but never claimed to have thus removed his guilt; he knew that only Christ's mercy could do that. To get right with God and man, Bill Clinton at this point should confess any cover-ups, personal or political, that he has initiated.
Fourth, Mr. Cleveland and his Democratic Party at that time believed in promoting the general welfare but not the "vicious paternalism" that would arise if citizens developed "the hope and expectations of direct and especial favors." Saying that the purpose of government was "the enforcement of exact justice and equality" before the law, he vetoed measures favored by special interests, even when Republicans called him cruel and mean-spirited for doing so.
A notable example arose in 1887 when Congress voted to send $10,000 of free seed to drought-stricken farmers in west Texas. Cleveland vetoed the bill, arguing that "federal aid, in such cases, encourages the expectations of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character." He argued that such aid also could reduce among Americans "that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bond of a common brotherhood."
He challenged private helpers to come forward.
They did. The Dallas News and the Louisville Courier-Journal were among the newspapers that promoted relief funds; the Courier-Journal editorialized that "Kentucky alone will send $10,000 in seed or in money ... to justify the president's contention that the people will do what is right." Clara Barton, president of the American Red Cross, also called on private sources to do the job: "The counties which have suffered from drought need help, without doubt, but not help from Congress." Volunteer contributors from across the country responded: West Texas eventually received not $10,000 of federal funding, but over $100,000 in private aid.
That was then and this is now: The Democratic Party abandoned the limited government philosophy in the 1930s, with Franklin Roosevelt's aide Rexford Tugwell arguing that Mr. Cleveland "could never be other than a narrow conservative" because he refused to ... "lift his eyes to a larger future for the nation and use the government to make the promise a reality." Perhaps that's because Cleveland through much of his life tried to keep both eyes on God.