“The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland” by Richard Welch, Jr. is an intellectual examination of Cleveland which was published in 1988. Welch was a history professor at Lafayette College in Easton, PA for over three decades. He died in 1989 at the age of sixty-five.
This biography of Cleveland is infrequently read but proves scholarly, insightful and unquestionably worthwhile. Welch’s book may be the most thoughtful of the Cleveland biographies I’ve read, but also the most balanced.
While the author fails to embrace the negative opinion of Cleveland espoused by earlier biographer Horace Merrill, he is not quite as enamored of this former president as more recent authors such as Alyn Brodsky. On balance, the author seems favorably inclined to Cleveland while remaining mindful of (and vocal about) his shortcomings – both as a politician and party leader.
Experiencing Welch’s coverage of Cleveland’s life and presidencies often feels like reading the transcript from a very well-organized and carefully drafted lecture by a good college professor. Unlike many of my professors, however, Welch is careful not to wander too far into the weeds and he seems to always ensure the reader is keenly aware of the most important points within each topic.
But while comprehensive in scope (just barely), this biography is far more focused on Cleveland’s politics than his private life. His youth and early adult life are covered, but at the rate of about a page per decade. The book’s pace slows a bit during his year as mayor of Buffalo and term as governor of New York. But the author’s focus really begins with Cleveland’s first campaign for president in 1884.
Readers seeking an easy life and times of Cleveland will find this is not a perfect choice. Welch’s book is more a dispassionate and scholarly exploration of Cleveland’s presidency and his politics than an entertaining and carefree narrative of his life. But this is not an overly dry and academic treatment as might be expected from a book of this type; Welch’s review of Cleveland’s life is consistently well-written and clear.
Nonetheless, the reader is only quickly introduced to Cleveland’s early life and witnesses his family life in brief bursts. Even his clandestine surgery aboard a friends’s yacht to remove a cancerous growth was discussed with surprising economy. Welch’s focus rarely gravitates to issues affecting Cleveland and his family and more often concerns the drama (or lack thereof) relating to his politics and policies.
Overall, Richard Welch’s “The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland” falls short as an entertaining narrative of Cleveland’s life. But Welch provides the reader with so many excellent one-liners and observations that as a second or third review of Cleveland I can imagine no better book. Judged strictly as an astute, academic but critical examination of the man and his politics, this book could hardly be better.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars