Grover Cleveland Tells the Truth

“Whatever you tell them, tell the truth.”

  Grover Cleveland.

Grover Cleveland

If you’re a reform candidate running for president, the last thing you need is a sex scandal; but that’s what faced Grover Cleveland as he opened his newspaper on July 21, 1884. In an age when political corruption was pervasive, Cleveland stood out as a principled defender of the public trust. A lawyer by trade, he was elected Sheriff of Erie County, New York before running for mayor of Buffalo with a pledge to take on the political machine. Narrowly elected, he was as good as his word. He reversed graft-riddled contracts and instituted measures to safeguard public funds. With a reputation for courage and honesty, Cleveland ran for and handily won the contest for Governor of New York in 1882. Within two months he’d vetoed eight bills and taken on influential business leaders like Jay Gould and the most powerful political machine of all, Tammany Hall.

“Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

Cleveland increasingly gained popularity with reform-minded people of both parties. After only two years as governor, he was nominated by his party to run for the presidency on a platform that stressed character, integrity, and clean-government. The campaign was progressing nicely when the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke the story that in 1874, Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock with a young woman named Maria Halpin. What’s more, the paper claimed he’d coldly abandoned both mother and child. The opposition seized on the story and began depicting Cleveland as a duplicitous, hard-drinking womanizer. Mocking chants of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” were heard at political rallies from coast-to-coast. That’s when, in a move that would surprise modern political operatives, Cleveland instructed his campaign staff to tell the truth.

The Truth

The truth was that Cleveland, along with several other men had been involved with Halpin. Actual paternity was uncertain (Halpin named her son after both Cleveland and another man) but as the only bachelor among the group, Cleveland had assumed responsibility for the child. That included paying support, later providing medical care for Halpin and ultimately facilitating the child’s adoption by a wealthy couple. The truth paid off, and on inauguration day, Cleveland’s happy supporters did a chant of their own—Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House Ha! Ha! Ha!

Today, many people complain that they no longer trust the government, business or other organizations. They believe that the truth is too often a matter of spin or selective disclosure. But organizations aren’t inherently honest or dishonest. They’re made up of people who decide if they’ll be truthful or less than truthful. It’s always an individual choice. You do it or you don’t. Most of the time, the truth goes down easy. It’s not hard to be truthful when you’re operating in good faith and doing nothing wrong. But when you make a mistake, there’s a powerful urge to rationalize or even deny your missteps. That’s when it becomes a test of character. In that briefest of moments—when you consider whether to tell it straight or put a little spin on it—remember Grover Cleveland and take the President’s advice.     —Ebert

Leave a Reply