Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The President is a Sick Man, by Matthew Alego

Today I'm looking at a book about Grover Cleveland, a president that most people only know because of his election to two non-consecutive terms, a feat which today remains unrepeated. This book talks about a secret operation that was performed on Grover Cleveland to remove cancerous cells from the president's mouth in the summer of 1893. Because of the impending debate over repeal of the Silver Purchase Act as well as the ongoing economic depression, secrecy of the operation was considered paramount for the good of the country. However word soon leaked about Cleveland's operation and a reporter named E.J. Edwards revealed the information in a fairly tame article, drawing ire from Cleveland and his doctors. Despite his reputation for integrity, Cleveland and his aides categorically denied that Cleveland had anything more than some bad teeth removed and E.J. Edward's article was dismissed as a hoax. It would not be until twenty-five years later that William Keen, the leading surgeon, finally admitted the operation had been performed.

I have some issues with this book, and I think it's mostly because there are points where Algeo goes onto tangents to talk about subjects that really don't contribute to the subject matter and I suspect that was to pad out the length of the book. I think Algeo also blows the secrecy surrounding Cleveland's operation out of proportion by comparing it to conspiracies like Watergate. The result is a book that's adequate from a research perspective but Alego's historical arguments don't really work.

Alego does an adequate job talking about the historical facts and providing relevant historical context, such as including the history of the antiseptic movement which dramatically increased the survival rate of surgery patients after its adoption and which probably helped save Cleveland's life because his doctors followed antiseptic protocol. Alego also talks about the silver debate and the importance attached to repealing the Silver Purchase Act as an attempt to rectify the Panic of 1893. For modern audiences, it can be difficult to understand the importance of the money question and how it caused divisions even within the Democratic and Republican parties. Cleveland's Vice-President, Adlai Stevenson, was a staunch silverite and would never have approved a repeal of the Silver Purchase Act. If word that Cleveland wasn't well it would have significantly undermined his political power and given the silverites the motivation to hold out.

However, Alego spends a significant amount of time talking about other subjects which have little to no relevance to the book and feel obviously used to pad out the length of the book. There are at least a couple of passages that could definitely have been removed without losing anything substantive to the book. Among these was when Alego took time talking about the history of men's facial hair in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century until the development of the safety razor, and going so far as to categorize the facial hair of each president who had facial hair. Alego also blames Cleveland's response to the Pullman Strike (sending in federal troops to violently put down the strike) on the pain Cleveland experienced from his surgery. I would say that completely ignores the trend of the government siding with capital against labor in the nineteenth century. I mean, there are multiple times when troops were sent in to put down strikes so it's hard for me to agree that Cleveland having surgery was the sole reason he put in the Pullman strike.

Ultimately I think this book is a lot longer than it needs to be. When you look at the historical context, it's hardly surprising that Cleveland kept his heath condition a secret. Alego himself writes about how the word cancer couldn't even be published in newspapers, much less talked about. Cleveland wasn't the first president to conceal his actual health and project an image of healthy vigor to assure the nation, and he wasn't the last either. While I agree it was an act of dishonesty, this was hardly and act bringing about a constitutional crisis.

Overall I'd say this book isn't worth your time because it hasn't got a lot to say and it becomes very obvious when Alego is just padding out the book to meet a word count.

- Kalpar

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