“A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland” is Troy Senik’s newly-released biography of the 22nd and 24th president. Senik is a writer whose work has appeared in The Orange County Register, City Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He recently co-founded Kite & Key, a digital media company.
Grover Cleveland, virtually unknown today, was hardly better known in his own time. A few years before his presidency he was a lawyer whose claim-to-fame was a stint as Erie County sheriff. Now he is best remembered – if at all – as the only president to serve non-consecutive terms in the White House.
Hailed as a long overdue promotion of Cleveland’s character and place in history, “A Man of Iron” is Senik’s attempt to re-introduce this overlooked president into the American consciousness. But while his book is successful in that effort, it is not the first biography to attempt such a mission. Alyn Brodsky’s dynamic “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character” was published in 2000 with the same objective.
Readers new to Cleveland will find Senik’s writing lively, insightful and engaging with an occasionally casual feel. As a result, this book’s 323 pages of text are remarkably easy to consume – irrespective of one’s familiarity with late 19th century American history. The narrative is liberally infused with interesting (and relevant) trivia, keen observations and witty one-liners. Given its subject, this book is surprisingly hard to put down.
In writing what is essentially a hybrid biography / character study, Senik largely relies on groundwork laid by previous biographers. His central thesis – that Cleveland was a great president even if he did not enjoy a great presidency – seems an exercise in semantics. But Senik’s evaluation of Cleveland’s admirably principled character, and the biography into which that analysis is infused, is both convincing and enlightening.
Included are entertaining, if well-worn, stories of alleged infidelity told during Cleveland’s first presidential campaign and anecdotes about his presidential tendency to act against his own interests (but for the public good). Also gripping is Senik’s account of Cleveland’s secret surgery-at-sea. And the book’s first pages, examining how Americans rate and rank their chief executives, is uncommonly thought-provoking.
But readers already familiar with Cleveland will find little new in this book. Most of the ground Senik covers has been well trod by previous biographers and, notwithstanding the publisher’s claims of “newly uncovered details,” there seems to be little in this book which is truly revelatory.
And in order to maintain the book’s relatively light weight (it is less than half the size of Allan Nevins’s 1932 classic and roughly the length of Richard Welch’s review of Cleveland’s presidency), Senik had to excise much of Cleveland’s life and his era. Finally, this book occasionally feels less like a biography than an apology to Cleveland for the obscurity he endures at a time when politics seems to need someone with his unflinching ethical instincts.
Overall, Troy Senik’s new biography proves a thoroughly readable exploration of Grover Cleveland’s character. While lacking some of the historical context and depth of a more completely examined life, this book does a commendable job capturing the essence of Cleveland’s seventy-one years and the era he inhabited.
Overall Rating: 4 stars