There is nothing unique about U.S. presidents hiding medical ailments from the public. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and John Kennedy, among others, withheld serious health issues. Grover Cleveland, a man mostly known for serving two non-consecutive terms and being “nearly rectangular in shape,” is far from alone in having masked his malady and its treatment.
Still, the cover-up was quite a feat, audacious in conception, execution and timing. Matthew Algeo’s breezy, enjoyable book takes us back to 1893, when Cleveland had just reoccupied the White House amid an economic freefall. The veto-happy chief executive was known for his staunch integrity. But shortly after his return, a rough spot was discovered on the roof of his mouth: a tumor. Cleveland feared that the news would leave the public’s confidence “utterly shattered.” In addition, he had witnessed the widespread fascination with Ulysses Grant’s decline just a few years earlier, and he “had no intention of becoming the object of such a spectacle.” For both of these reasons, Cleveland decided to keep the cancer and its removal secret.
The operation, which took place on a yacht en route from New York to Cleveland’s summer home in Massachusetts, was fraught with danger and potential complications. Almost immediately after the president and his coterie disembarked, reporters started asking spot-on questions. Less than two months later, the story, which Algeo describes as “one of the greatest scoops in the history of American journalism,” was broken by E.J. Edwards in a Philadelphia paper.
Algeo draws on extensive research and vivid detail to document the secret operation, the cover-up, the scoop and the denials and attacks that damaged Edwards’s reputation. Algeo skillfully threads the text with information on the economic battles of the time and the state of journalism. Too often, however, he delves into supposition and theorizing; there is no need for the asides “we can imagine,” “must have,” “perhaps” and “surely he knew” that litter the text. The facts he has gathered are strong enough on their own.
It should be noted that Cleveland seems never to have personally vilified Edwards, as the subtitle suggests. His friends and doctors lied for him and disparaged the report, while Cleveland went on carefully stage-managed outings to display his health and vigor after what Algeo describes as his “extraordinary” recovery. Edwards lived to see his scoop publicly acknowledged by one of the surgeons, but Algeo paints a startling portrait of an era when a politician could simply deny accurate reporting and be given the benefit of the doubt. It’s not so easy to get away with that in today’s era of blogs, Twitter and paparazzi.