Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: THE PRESIDENT IS A SICK MAN by Matthew Algeo (Chicago Review Press, 2011)

Grover Cleveland was a big man who laid down a number of equally hefty milestones during his two terms as President. First (and only) President to serve two nonconsecutive terms; only Democrat elected President between 1860 and 1912; first President to be married while in the White House... and the first President to undergo major surgery under anesthesia, as described in this "bitty" but eminently readable book.

Remarkably, Cleveland's July 1893 operation to remove a cancerous tumor from the roof of his mouth was done entirely in secret aboard a yacht... and the secret held for almost 25 years, until one of the surgeons received permission from Cleveland's widow to print the full story in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. One respected reporter, E.J. Edwards of the PHILADELPHIA PRESS, managed to get the contemporary scoop but was denounced by a competing paper for reasons both personal and ideological. The "other half" of what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward narrative is Algeo's description of the resulting damage to Edwards' reputation -- and the reporter's ultimate vindication.

Algeo frequently veers "off message," discussing "the money question" (the great ideological struggle of the 1890s), describing the terrible effects of the Panic of 1893, tracing the development of sterile surgical techniques, summarizing Cleveland's pre- and post-Presidential careers, and outlining the coming of "yellow journalism," among other digressions. Sometimes, however, these detours shed light on otherwise mysterious decisions. Cleveland's tumor became a problem at precisely the moment when the bottom had fallen out of the economy, and Cleveland's Vice President, Adlai Stevenson, was at odds with the President over the issue of whether the government should continue to purchase silver. The operation was kept secret in part because any news that the gold-standard-supporting Cleveland was seriously ill would turn the Panic into a complete rout. Then, too, Cleveland despised the press and wanted to keep them out of what he considered to be his intimate affairs.

The padding is clearly visible to all, but this is a worthwhile read that gives an interesting, context-driven account of an obscure, but certainly non-trivial, event in American history.

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