The most honest president of them all

The remarkable Cleveland is generally remembered by Americans today, when they remember him at all, as the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms — he lost his bid for reelection in 1888 (despite winning a majority of the popular vote), but he ran again successfully in 1892. What he should be remembered for is his monumental incorruptibility and commitment to ethical government. As he had in Buffalo and in Albany, Cleveland brought with him to Washington the ardent conviction that “a public office is a public trust,” and that it was never appropriate for government to dole out favors at taxpayers’ expense, no matter how politically expedient.

He was never paralyzed by the fear of saying “no.” In his first term alone, Cleveland vetoed 414 bills, more than double the total of all the presidents who preceded him. Over his eight years in the White House, Cleveland rejected an astonishing 584 bills passed by Congress. That many of those measures were popular feel-good measures, such as authorizations for specious veterans’ pensions, makes Cleveland’s fortitude all the more impressive. Only 1 percent of his vetoes were overridden — a testament to the power of ethical principle to withstand the political appetite for spending other people’s money.

Some presidents never met a principle they wouldn’t abandon for electoral gain. Cleveland, principled to the bone, was of a different breed.