January 22, 2010
John Edwards’ melodrama is interesting because, among other things, of how it both resembles and departs from the experience of Grover Cleveland. Edwards was a viable candidate in last year’s presidential primary campaign, and he knew at the time that he had had an affair and fathered a child. Something similar happened to Cleveland during his presidential campaign against James G. Blaine in 1884. Blaine (“the continental liar from the State of Maine”) was beset with a corruption accusation, but the Republicans planned to counter by reporting that Cleveland had sired a child while he was an unmarried attorney in Buffalo. When this scandal started to emerge, Cleveland told his campaign staff — and here’s where the stories diverge — to “tell the truth.”
The truth was that Maria Crofts Halpin, the woman who had named Cleveland as the father of her child, had had relationships with other men. Cleveland didn’t know with certainty that he was the father of her child, but he accepted the responsibility and made support payments to the woman — apparently because he was the only one of her lovers who was unmarried. People had different values then.
There was no happy ending to that story. Mrs. Halpin had a troubled life, complicated by alcohol. Cleveland did what he could to help her and her son, but eventually the boy was adopted into a stable home and Cleveland’s connection ended.
The lesson, Sen. Edwards, is that Cleveland didn’t try to hide his mistake and he won the popular vote for president in 1884, 1888, and 1892. He came short on electoral votes in ’88, and took four years off. I don’t think the public has changed so much in all the intervening years that it doesn’t still suffer a bungler before a liar.