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.”
Cleveland wasn’t a perfect candidate. His status as a single, middle-aged man was suspicious; he had a reputation for being a little too close to attractive young women; and he was a halting, uncertain public speaker. Still, his Republican opponent wasn’t exactly a knight in shining armor. Blaine had been dogged for years by accusations of corruption—most recently, that he’d accepted a bribe from the Union Pacific Railroad to advance the company’s interests in the House and Senate.
So this gave the Democrats plenty of room to position Cleveland as the refreshing outsider, under the slogan “Public office is a public trust.” Cleveland’s rallies hammered away on the themes of financial responsibility, probity, and morality. In fact, his supporters had nicknamed him “Grover the Good”; three months before the 1884 Democratic nominating convention, a cartoon in Puck titled “Cleveland the Celibate” showed him laboring over New York State business while shunning the temptations of three beautiful women.
And then, that persona shattered.
On July 21, just days after the convention, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke shocking news under the headline “A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man’s History.” A decade earlier (or so the story went) Cleveland had seduced the respectable widow Maria Halpin, had impregnated her, and had then snatched Halpin’s baby away, committed her to an insane asylum, and forced another family to foster the child under an assumed name to protect his reputation.
The Telegraph had this story thirdhand. The editors had been approached with it by a local Baptist minister, George Ball. Ball himself—a Republican activist, and a wealthy investor in his nephews’ canning-jar company—had gotten it from a physician friend, one George Lewis, who claimed that he had heard it, eight years before, from Maria Halpin herself. Lewis had never repeated the accusations, or seen Halpin a second time, but Cleveland’s nomination had persuaded him that it was finally time to come forward.
A media frenzy erupted.
For the four months between the nomination and the election, everyone who might be connected with the story—Halpin’s previous employer, her attorney, her landlady, the head doctor at the Providence Lunatic Asylum, Grover Cleveland’s cleaning woman—was pursued by reporters from every major paper. Halpin herself remained in hiding until late October, when she issued a statement insisting that yes, Cleveland was her son’s father, and that the “circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public.”
The implication of rape was immediately seized on by the press. At rallies, Cleveland was greeted by crowds of Republican voters chanting, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”
Immorality, sexual assault, victimizing the helpless: Was the presidency now beyond his reach?
Not for a skilled player of the outsider card.
From his earliest days in public office, Cleveland had positioned himself as an accidental politician—more campaigned for than campaigning, more concerned for the people than for himself. His friends and supporters constantly promoted this image. His law partner Wilson Bissell insisted that when it was initially “suggested that Cleveland should take the nomination” for his first elected office (as a local sheriff), “such a contingency had never entered his mind, and he at first declined to listen to the suggestion. Party managers … at length successfully urged upon him the importance of the subject as a party matter, and his duty and obligation to his party.” Cleveland himself regularly trumpeted his aversion to politics as usual; nominated to run for mayor of Buffalo, he announced that he’d hoped for “some other and worthier member” of the party to receive the nomination, but that he had no “right … to consult [my] own inclination against the call of [the] party”).
This was a myth. Each office Cleveland ran for was a careful step in his ascension toward the highest office in the land. But his constant separation of himself from politics as usual was a canny and necessary move, coming at a time when the ﬁnancial misdealings of elected ofﬁcials (particularly in New York) had reached epic proportions. James Blaine’s scandal was only one of a score, all of them enriching their corrupt participants at the expense of the man on the street. The general voter, in the words of contemporary historian Henry Jones Ford, believed that “the constitutional ideal is noble; but the politicians are vile.”
So Cleveland’s campaign downplayed the allegations and ramped up the everyman rhetoric. Cleveland ordered his operatives to ignore Blaine’s own private life (which encompassed a few irregularities, such as the birth of his oldest son just three months after his wedding), so that a head-to-head comparison of the two men’s sexual histories would stay off the table. Instead, Cleveland’s rallies were designed to appeal to voters who—like the candidate himself—hadn’t been given a fancy education, weren’t independently wealthy, and didn’t belong to the political elite or have insider pull. Cleveland was even at some pains to portray himself, despite his successful law practice, as a poor student, a nonreader, a non-intellectual.
The strategy worked. Cleveland was “unpretending and straightforward,” one supporter explained,“ a man who hesitates not a moment to show the door to the friends of corruption.” His friend Richard Watson Gilder mused, in the first chapter of his book Grover Cleveland, “I suppose the very fact that he was not ‘literary’ was a part of [his] attraction … his lack of sophistication, his rustic simplicity of thought … the fact that he was educated, as Taine said of Napoleon, not by books or academies, but by actualities.”
Meanwhile, in a spectacular misjudgment, Blaine chose to attend a “prosperity dinner” in his honor, with 200 of the richest men in America. The morning after the dinner, the New York World published a cartoon placing Blaine and a dozen or so wealthy men at a huge and lavishly set table, beneath a banner that reads The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.
In front of the table, a ragged working-class family stands, pleading for food, but no one notices their presence.
Cleveland had grasped what Blaine could not: that the man on the street has a much more personal relationship to a president than to a representative or senator. “In the scheme of our national Government,” Cleveland himself wrote, after the end of his second term in office, “the Presidency is preëminently the people’s office. Of course, all offices created by the Constitution … must be recognized, in a sense, as the offices and agencies of the people … [but the Presidency] is especially the office related to the people as individuals.”
Individuals who could vote, that is: which is to say, men. This was before suffrage, so the opinion of landed white men with enough confidence to go to the polls was paramount. Hand in hand with his outsider, non-elite standing went Cleveland’s expert ability to play the upstanding, hapless victim of a rapacious woman. The earliest stories about Maria Halpin, largely provided by Republicans, portrayed him as a wolﬁsh womanizer who had satisﬁed his own desires at the cost of a helpless widow’s health and reputation. So Cleveland—while remaining above the fray by refusing to address the issue himself—allowed the Democratic operatives to wreck Halpin’s reputation on his behalf. He didn’t deny that as an unmarried man, he’d had sex with Halpin. But far from being a virtuous matron, she was (they insisted) a raging alcoholic who had been carrying on with three married men simultaneously. Cleveland’s removal of the baby from Halpin’s home was a rescue act. His refusal to admit the child’s paternity even worked in his favor, because it left open the possibility that his payment in support of the child was an act of pity for a sick woman and someone else’s helpless son.
Cleveland recruited a few respectable outside voices to confirm this version of events. Among them were the evangelical hymn writer Fanny Crosby, who had known him as a young man, and Reverend Kinsley Twining, the well-known Protestant minister. Twining explained to the press that Cleveland had confided in him fully, and there had been “no adultery, no breach of promise, no obligation of marriage.” Since the baby’s birth, furthermore, Cleveland’s behavior had been “singularly honorable, showing no attempt to evade responsibility, and doing all he could to meet the duties involved.”
Falling prey to a beautiful but oversexed and unstable woman: It could happen to any man, and the voters indulged in a shiver of sympathy before turning their eyes back to Belshazzar Blaine and his bulging pocketbook.
Cleveland had deployed the outsider strategy, played the victim card, avoided discussions of his personal life, and appealed to the fellow feeling of male voters. And in November 1884, he was elected president of the United States.
Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? His Democratic supporters added an additional line to the chant: “Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha!”
A century later, in a pre-#MeToo America with a much greater tolerance for sex outside marriage, Gary Hart gave up his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination when he was photographed with the model Donna Rice sitting on his lap. (No sex, no assault.) Hart was only one of many male politicians who were unceremoniously ejected from public life after such a scandal.
Yet Cleveland, occupying a world of Victorian morality that exalted motherhood and sternly condemned male lasciviousness (at least in public), sailed to triumph—even persuading evangelical leaders to throw their support behind him.
His victory offers a few hints to how politicians—both then and now—weather these sorts of crises. Cleveland didn’t slander his accuser directly, but he certainly recruited others to do it for him. He found a few powerful and popular voices—even evangelical leaders!—to chime in about his strength of character. He didn’t point fingers at his opponent’s alleged sexual misdeeds, even though there was useful material to exploit; he knew that the more voters heard about sexual misconduct, the more disillusioned they would become.
And he kept his eye on the money. Even though James Blaine’s shady dealings didn’t lead to legal action, he was universally believed to be guilty of massive grift. A president accused of sexual predation was preferable to one who might have his hand in the voter’s pocket, and Cleveland knew this. He shifted the conversation from sex to self-interest, from victimization to entitlement, from babies to bribes, from physical appetite to financial corruption, and he won.
In short, here’s the Cleveland playbook: Minimize your connections with the rich, the privileged, and the comfortable. Emphasize your working-class roots, your disadvantages, your separation from the intellectual class. If you’re not actually an outsider, pretend that you are. And focus in on the money.
Because, in the end, it’s almost always about the economy.