Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Best US President

Yesterday was President's Day in the U.S., so here a day late, is a column I wrote a few years ago on the man I consider the best president of all time.


Who was the best U.S. president of all time?

Ask that question and you might get answers like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or maybe Thomas Jefferson.

But Lawrence Reed, who heads up an American think tank known as the Foundation for Economic Education, would have a different answer.

I recently heard Reed deliver a speech at a conference in Michigan where he made the case that America’s best all time president was actually Grover Cleveland.

My first reaction on hearing that was, Grover who?

And then my American history class from high school kicked in. Grover Cleveland, I recalled, is the answer to a trivia question: he is the only president in American history to serve two non-consecutive terms.

He served as America’s president from 1885–1889 and then again from1893–1897. But that’s not what Reed liked about Cleveland. It turns out Cleveland was one of America’s most honest presidents and also one of its most principled believers in economic freedom.

His honesty, in fact, was well known to Cleveland’s contemporaries.

An editorial in the New York World which endorsed Cleveland for the presidency in 1884, gave four reasons to support him: “1. He’s an honest man. 2. He’s an honest man. 3. He’s an honest man. 4. He’s an honest man.”

And it was this honesty which formed the foundation for his political convictions. As Reed noted, Cleveland felt it dishonest for “the government to spend more than it had and send its bills to future generations.

So he always worked to produce a balanced budget. He even felt it was dishonest for government to run a large surplus — ‘ruthless extortion,’ he called it — because it was a sign that government had taken more from the people than it needed.

 And it was dishonest, he felt, for government to think it could spend money better than the people who first earned it.

That’s why Cleveland was also opposed to high tariffs. In his view it was dishonest for the government to promote an economic policy that harmed consumers and which bestowed special privileges to politically-connected business leaders.

And so determined was Cleveland to control government spending that he vetoed twice as many bills as all previous 21 presidents combined. Sometimes that forced him to make tough decisions. In 1887, for instance, he vetoed a bill to provide $10,000 in relief to Texas farmers whose crops had been wiped out by drought.

To justify this decision Cleveland declared, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people." 

Grover believed private charities, not government, should support the people. And, indeed, in this case that’s what happened. A newspaper appealed to its readers and raised the $10,000 to help the Texas farmers buy new seed. Of course, being honest and principled and keeping government small doesn’t make for exciting history, which is perhaps why Cleveland is largely forgotten today. And that’s too bad.

Certainly America, and for that matter Canada, could use a politician like Cleveland who put principle and conviction ahead of political gain.


Unknown said...

Well, he wasn't completely honest. On July 1 1893 he was on a yacht off of Long Island where doctors removed parts of his upper jaw and hard palate to remove cancerous growths.

The president covered the surgery up by saying that he had two teeth removed. The real story wasn't revealed until 1917.

Unknown said...

Pres. Grover Cleveland; Did you know that his Summer White House was at Paul Smiths, N.Y. His cottage is restored and on display as a heritage site at Paul Smiths College, Paul Smiths, N.Y. where he stayed every summer as President of the U.S. Paul Smiths College is a famous Hotel & Restaurant and Forestry College plus Arts they own 14,000 acres on several lakes in the area.