If Donald Trump persists in present plans to mount a vengeful comeback campaign in 2024, he’ll find his name forever linked with one of his less-celebrated predecessors: Grover Cleveland, the only president to manage the unique feat that Trump seems determined to repeat. After losing a close bid for re-election in 1888, Cleveland came roaring back to power four years later, qualifying as both our 22nd and 24th president.
Superficial similarities might well encourage Trump’s conviction that he’s the right guy for a Grover Do-Over: both men are burly New Yorkers who tipped the scales at 250 pounds during their first terms. They both campaigned as reforming outsiders determined to cleanse the corrupt center of power. Cleveland, who briefly served as Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York, never held any post in the nation’s capital before claiming the presidency in his insurgent campaign.
On the negative side of the ledger, both men avoided military service during major wars: Trump dodged Vietnam with his dubious diagnosis of “bone spurs”, while Cleveland legally paid a Civil War substitute soldier to take his place in the Union army. More dangerously, the two candidates survived lurid sex scandals: Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape featured bragging about grabbing women in their private parts, while Cleveland confessed to far worse than grabbing or bragging. Maria Halpin, a widowed sales clerk in Buffalo, alleged Grover raped her and he spent 10 years secretly supporting the son that resulted. Cleveland’s supporters stressed his forthright acknowledgement of the situation, but critics still deployed one of the catchiest chants in campaign history: “Ma, Ma! Where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha-Ha-Ha!”
Once in the White House, bachelor Cleveland married the daughter of his former law-partner who, at 21, became the youngest First Lady in history. The glamorous Melania Trump reached a riper age before her ascension, but her 24-year age gap with her husband nearly matched the 27 years between Grover and Frances.
Most striking of all, both Cleveland and Trump earned office by vanquishing the most eminent, polarizing politician of the opposition party: James G. Blaine, like Hillary Clinton, had served as a U.S. Senator and recent Secretary of State, with a prior failed bid for his party’s nomination.
These commonalities shouldn’t obscure striking contrasts between the two, prospective, non-consecutive presidents. The entrepreneurial Trumps always focused on business: Donald’s grandfather Friedrich immigrated from Germany in 1885, the first year of Cleveland’s presidency, and opened a restaurant and rooming house (reportedly doubling as a brothel) near Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The Clevelands, on the other hand, provided a line of devout but often impoverished clergymen, with the future president’s father and an older brother toiling as Presbyterian ministers. Though Grover never pursued a religious vocation, he spent years serving a charitable school for the blind and, Maria Halpin notwithstanding, cultivated a reputation for reformist purity that produced the nickname “Grover the Good.” When endorsing Cleveland’s candidacy, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World listed four reasons readers should vote for him: “1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man. 4. He is an honest man.”
Cleveland’s touching last words before his death in 1908 summarized his personal priorities: “I have tried so hard to do right.” For Trump, even his most ardent admirers celebrate his counter-punching more than his conscience, and exalt ruthlessness above rectitude. If Trump tried to re-brand as “Donald the Good” he’d provoke more ridicule than renewed enthusiasm.
Before plunging forward for 2024, the current incumbent should consider Cleveland’s example. A crushing depression crippled the economy just months after his second inauguration and cast its shadow over his entire term. He suffered a near-fatal bout with cancer, with doctors removing much of his upper-left jaw in secret surgery aboard the yacht of a wealthy benefactor. Labor violence and the suffering of heartland farmers shattered party unity, leaving Cleveland, at the conclusion of his second term, far less popular than when his initial term ended, eight years earlier.
This history presages Scott Fitzgerald’s later declaration that “there are no second acts in American lives”, and should command Trump’s attention as he ponders another plunge into presidential politics for 2024. He may savor the vengeful idea of a colossal comeback, but the pattern from every prior president shows that second terms are always difficult, while the Grover’s baleful experience suggests that non-consecutive second terms may be toughest of all.