A 19th-Century Scandal Receives Excellent Treatment
The President is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth
(Chicago Review Press)
US: May 2011
In this day and age, where politicians are expected to have a presence on YouTube and Twitter as well as Capitol Hill, we’ve become accustomed to being over-saturated with meaningless news about our leaders. Nothing is forgotten in the digital age, and so we have grainy videos and out-of-context statements from decades prior being used during campaigns as ammunition against the other side. It’s enough to make previous eras, eras when the public didn’t know every last detail about their leaders, somewhat quaint.
The President is a Sick Man is nominally concerned with a small, covert event that happened during Grover Cleveland’s second administration. Upon discovering the growth of a cancerous tumor in his mouth, the president arranged for a secret surgery to take place upon a yacht, away from prying journalists and scheming politicians. What’s astonishing about this story is not so much the event but the unlikeliness of such a thing happening in 2011—those who knew about Cleveland’s surgery were limited to perhaps a dozen people. Not even the vice-president knew of operation, and the truth of the affair was not confirmed until nearly 25 years later. The sheer secrecy of the event is astonishing to modern readers.
Matthew Algeo writes with light-hearted, engaging prose, and The President is a Sick Man reads more like an unlikely heist novel than a dry presidential history. The characters are all firmly sketched out, and Algeo provides a brief but effective view of Grover Cleveland himself—the hard-partying New York politician who became an unlikely president twice in two non-consecutive terms. Algeo doesn’t shy away from some of Cleveland’s less flattering moments, but also does a good job addressing such scandals like his out-of-wedlock daughter and his bride, who was half his age. While he leaves more detailed character analyses to other historians, the material Algeo uses here is more than enough to set the stage for the main event.
This description of the secret surgery is filled with all sorts of incredible details that are so unlikely that they just have to be true. The scene of doctors sitting around Cleveland’s yacht smoking cigars after successfully operating on mouth cancer is a wonderful anecdote that could only come from the 19th-century, and the book is filled with little stories like this one. Algeo manages to paint the denizens of the era as both sweetly quaint and hopelessly naive; it was a time, after all, when journalists mostly believed whatever story the president told them.
In addition to the details about Cleveland’s life and sickness, the book also fills in essential medical details, such as providing a brief history of presidential illness. Algeo makes the case that Cleveland’s deception was the precursor to Woodrow Wilson’s larger conspiracy to hide his stroke from the public, and also a reaction to Ulysses Grant’s very public struggle with cancer. Details about the prevailing 19th-century views on the “dread disease” are also interesting. Anesthesiology was a nascent field, and the practice of sterilization hardly widespread. In short, Cleveland’s request for a quick, secret surgery on a yacht was perhaps a recipe for disaster. Algeo writes:
“Grover Cleveland was not the ideal candidate for radical surgery. He was overweight and out of shape. His neck was so thick, the joke went, he could take off his shirt without unbuttoning the collar. He probably had big blood pressure. And he was exhausted. [The doctor] knew the president might not survive the operation. The anesthesia could trigger a heart attack or stroke. It was also possible—even likely—that Cleveland would lose a large amount of blood, which, considering that no means of transfusion had yet been devised, would prove fatal.”
Adding to the drama is the prevailing political backdrop. Algeo does a remarkable job laying out the passionate debates between those supporting the gold standard and the “silverites”—a political debate as starkly divided as any loaded issue of our time. Cleveland’s major goal was to repeal the Silver Purchase Act and place America back on the gold standard, but this was a goal of which his vice-president Adlai Stevenson did not approve. So not only was Cleveland’s surgery hidden to prevent a public panic, but also to prevent the pro-silver politicians from moving against him. The president himself ordered Stevenson to the West Coast, to prevent the vice-president from learning of his surgery. The stories of deception and political manipulation are delightfully underhanded.
What’s astonishing is that the surgery and cover-up managed to be so successful. All these elements—the uncertainty of the medical field, the difficult job of concealing the hole in Cleveland’s mouth, preventing the vice-president and Cabinet from learning of the surgery—should have yielded chaos and political defeat. Instead, Cleveland managed to recover quickly and hide his ailment from both the politicians and the public. It’s the sort of scandal that would probably be impossible to pull off in 2011, but 1893 just happened to yield the right set of circumstances.
Algeo’s book is lively and entertaining, and it’s almost a shame that the focus is so small. The questions raised about presidential succession, polarizing political issues, the public’s right to know about the health of a political figure—these are all questions that are still relevant in the 21st century. The President is a Sick Man is an entertaining account of one of a little known event in American history, but the subject matter yields deeper questions. Algeo seems intent to keep his book as a popular history, which is a small disappointment, as in-text citations and more research notes could have provided a foundation for other historians to build upon. The book seems assiduously researched, but the lack of footnotes leaves the reader with some questions about where Algeo dug up his material. Some of his anecdotes and quotes are so fascinating that one can’t help but want to experience them in their original source.
Still, it’s certainly an achievement for a historical book about such an obscure event to be this engrossing, and to raise so many questions. Algeo’s book is a good blend of academic history with good old-fashioned storytelling, and will certainly be a delight to history buffs and amateurs alike.