The 2020 presidential campaign features two politicians accused of sexual assault, both of whom are nearly certain to secure their parties’ nominations. That fact isn’t as surprising as it may seem. More than a century ago, another future president managed to not only survive a sexual-misconduct scandal, but turn it to his advantage. That story tells us a lot about American politics—what’s changed about the public response to such allegations, and what hasn’t.
On a humid July evening in 1884, Grover Cleveland clambered onto the next-to-last rung of the American political ladder. He became the brand-new Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States—and instantly had to defend himself against an accusation of sexual misconduct.
Forty-seven and larger than life (300 vigorous pounds, fingers like sausages and chins to spare), Cleveland promised to be a new broom, a swamp-cleaner in stagnant Washington. Yes, he’d previously served as governor of New York, but in contrast to his opponent—the career politician James Blaine—he was a straight-talking outsider, apparently free from selfish political ambitions. He’d practiced law privately for two decades, building his reputation for business acuity. “Business men felt that they could trust him,” his successor Woodrow Wilson observed 25 years later, “because he … knew the business interests of the State and meant to guard them … [and] plain men … [saw] he was no subtile politician but a man without sophistication, like themselves.”