Algeo’s Book about President Cleveland

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… by Matthew Algeo

It would seem to me that Algeo is on a crusade; that he has an agenda. You don’t even have to read between the lines to realize that as far as he is concerned the press has the right and obligation to tell everything because “the people have the right to know”. Even the title of his book is full of emotion triggering words. Cleveland is “supposedly virtuous” and he “vilifies” the “courageous” newspaperman who “dared” expose the truth.

If you can sweep away Algeo’s method of coloring his words to make the impression he wants, the book gives a fairly good account of the drastic days beginning US President Grover Cleveland’s second term in office. The financial crisis the nation was facing was in many ways worse than the one we are now in and the background Algeo gives puts the whole time in perspective.

Algeo’s research indicates that Cleveland’s decision to keep secret the fact that he was having a tumor removed from his mouth was probably the only decision possible that would not very likely destroy the nation. Algeo tells us that “it was widely believed that his [Cleveland’s] health and the nation’s health were inextricably linked…..the Commercial and Financial Chronicle wrote, ‘Mr. Cleveland is about all that stands between this country and absolute disaster, and his death would be a great calamity.’ ” Algeo’s book tells us that businesses and people were already in a state of near panic and the newspaper article that reporter E. J. Edwards wrote made it sound as if he were on death’s doorstep. Edwards never actually mentioned the word “cancer”, but said “… Mr. Cleveland is a sick man, perhaps a very sick man, and that the physicians have fear that mortal disease is lurking in his system…”

Presidents both before and since Cleveland have concealed illness from the public. History tells us that Presidents Washington , Lincoln, Arthur, and Wilson all have life threatening health issues. This may have been done for any number of reasons such a need to appear to be a strong leader, a man in control of events or out of a wish for privacy. The media circus that attended the illness and death of General Grant was in all ways equal to the media circus that now surrounds actions of celebrities.

It was Cleveland’s decision not to make public the operation, but that does not alter the fact that he was considered a “virtuous” man. Only his bitterest rivals argued that point. There was no evidence in Algeo’s book of any instance where Cleveland was asked directly by the press about the operation and that he lied about it. Arguably there is a difference between not telling something and outright lying. In fact, Algeo doesn’t even give an example of Cleveland, himself, being asked about the operation.

The book also does not give any examples of Cleveland “vilifying” the newspaper man. At first other newspapers jumped on the story Edwards had written with all the hysteria possible, but after repeated denials from personal friends of Cleveland and administration personnel the press then heaped their anger at what they felt was a false story onto Edwards. It was the members of the press that did the vilifying. Paper after paper and reporter after reporter denounced him for writing the article.

Edwards was an accomplished and recognized reporter. Algeo tries to make the case that Edwards was being courageous, but Edwards didn’t “dare” to expose the truth. He heard the story, checked it out with two sources that he considered reliable (one of which was one of the doctors present at the operation) and wrote the story. No one told him not to, no one threatened him. In this story, there was no bribery, no misuse of public funds or crime that needed to be exposed. It was simply a chance to score what we know as a “scoop”.

Algeo states in this book that Edwards “understood the repercussions” for reporting the story. He knew that his story could start a whirlwind that might “plunge the administration, and perhaps the country, into turmoil” and that figuratively speaking the administration would probably try to “kill the messenger”, as Algeo puts it. One could say, however, that he wasn’t being “courageous”; he was merely reporting what he thought was probably the biggest story he would ever cover and, in spite of knowing the possible results, to the country, of making the story known at that time, he chose to do it anyway which opens up the entire question of: how much do the people ‘need to know’? When does “telling all” become irresponsible?

The book gives an excellent account of the state of the country during this time and the background of the financial difficulties it faced. However, I feel that when Algeo discusses Cleveland and Edwards he loses his objectivity. There is a difference between reporting facts in a neutral way and telling the same facts with words which give slant and bias in such a way as to make the reader adopt the view you wish them to. This kind of writing is not reporting; it is editorializing (to be polite). Algeo may have a cause to champion, but I am not sure why he chooses to try to make Cleveland, and his decision, appear to be so in need of censure.

One of the doctor’s involved wrote a detailed account which was published in the Saturday Evening Post after all the principals involved had died. So I don’t accept the reason that Algeo needed to ‘bring this event to light’. It seemed, to me, to be to be one more case of a reporter trying to bring down someone’s reputation simply because they can. Personally, I understood why Cleveland made the decision to keep the operation concealed and it moved him up in my estimation.

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