American history, biographies, book reviews, Grover Cleveland, H Paul Jeffers, presidential biographies, Presidents
“An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland” was written by H. Paul Jeffers and published in 2000. Jeffers was an editor and producer at ABC, CBS and NBC and was the news director at two radio stations. He was also a prolific author, having written about seventy books on a diverse range of topics (fiction as well as non-fiction). He died in 2009 at the age of seventy-five.
Jeffers’s biography of Cleveland is entertaining and moves more quickly than the book’s length (353 pages) might suggest. Throughout the book, the author seems to combine a fiction-writer’s sense of plot and perspective with a newsman’s eye for the most salient themes and details.
Topics that could have been dull and burdensome were efficiently covered in plain language and dispatched before slowing the book’s pace. Jeffers’s background in journalism seems to have provided him the ability to carefully calibrate the level of detail he provides: enough to ensure a substantive discussion but without the risk of losing his audience.
Jeffers is also careful to focus on Cleveland’s public as well as private lives. The narrative frequently focuses on his interactions with his wife and children, providing insight into this unusual politician’s life which would otherwise be lost with disproportionate focus on his political career.
Scholars, however, will quickly observe that this biography breaks no new historical ground; Jeffers admitted as much in an interview shortly after the book’s publication. This is not the work of an academic who has carved a new biographical trail through the Gilded Age forest. Rather, it is the story of Grover Cleveland’s life as told by someone who has walked the path already blazed by previous Cleveland biographers.
While Jeffers re-tells the story in his own unique way he frequently refers to observations and opinions made by those earlier biographers. Jeffers’s favorable view of Cleveland is obvious throughout the narrative, but his tendency is to provide the reader with a wide range of perspectives on Cleveland as provided by the likes of Allan Nevins, Richard Welch and Horace Samuel Merrill.
Some readers may notice a small number of curious factual errors (such as the date of Cleveland’s gubernatorial term) but most probably won’t notice or care. Jeffers also has a habit of referring to his subject as “Grover” – as if they were best friends. And there were intermittent comparisons of Cleveland’s character with that of Bill Clinton – but these felt more like needless jabs at the latter’s unique failures rather than helpful insights into Cleveland.
Overall, H. Paul Jeffers’s biography of Grover Cleveland is an interesting and painless introduction to this lesser-known president. Readers seeking thorough coverage of Cleveland with significant detail and groundbreaking insights will be disappointed. But Jeffers’s biography tells the life story of its subject in a way that will appeal to most readers – from the perspective of a journalist and storyteller, rather than that of a long-tenured history professor.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Paul C. said:
Agreed. This is a good intro to Cleveland. I wanted more penetrating insights into this president. I thought he did a great job with the Pullman strike and Cleveland’s disastrous handling of that. I also wanted a bit clearer explanation of the gold/silver controversy. I’ve read better analysis in other places.