As some of you know, I read a ton of nonfiction in addition to fiction. I think it’s important to read widely and read often, across genres and across fiction and nonfiction. Not only if you’re a writer. Do it as a reader, as someone willing to expand boundaries.
At any rate, here’s another one of those nonfiction books that I found resonates even today. It’s called (in the spirit of those wonderfully wordy 19th-century titles) The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, by journalist Matthew Algeo.
Why is this such a groovy read? Click on…
Okay, one thing I tell people is this. Read history, yes, but especially if it’s written by journalists. Why? Because journalists tend to be better writers, who tell a really excellent story that sucks you in to the point that you don’t even realize that you’ve learned something. Plus, guys like Algeo do their research homework.
This is one of those books. I didn’t know much about our 22nd president but fear not! Algeo enlightens us all about the man whose first name was actually “Steven.” However, he felt that “Grover” — his middle name — was a better, more formal-sounding name for his work in politics.
This is a guy who kind of fell into politics via his networks in Buffalo, New York. He turned out to be immensely popular as a political figure, and he remains the only president who has served two non-consecutive terms, leaving his second term immensely unpopular as a president. Why? Well, because when he took office in 1893, the country was in the grip of a horrendous recession that rivaled the Great Depression. A sort-of speculation bubble, in which factories failed, thousands of workers were laid off, corporations went on union-busting round-ups, the rich weren’t asked to do their share, and the brunt of the economic collapse fell on the backs of the poor, working-class, and middle-class. And Cleveland ended up an unpopular president because he didn’t solve the crisis.
Sound familiar? I thought it might.
Against that backdrop, we follow the president into his second term, and within a few months of his inauguration, Cleveland discovered a tumor on the left side of the roof of his mouth — the same side on which he chomped his cigars. Cleveland himself was a big dude, with big appetites who didn’t really care much about watching his health. He drank, he smoked, he ate hearty.
However, when he discovered this tumor, he knew he had to have it removed, and he knew that if the public found out, there would be an even worse public crisis in confidence. After all, at this time, cancer was an even dirtier word than AIDS was during the 80s. And medical care and knowledge wasn’t that great, so when Cleveland discovered this tumor, most people who had surgery usually died as a result of filthy conditions (and a lack of knowledge about germ theory).
Cleveland, however, got kinda lucky. The secret surgical team included Dr. William Williams Keen, who took the concepts of Pasteur and Joseph Lister with regard to keeping surgical rooms, instruments, and surgeon’s hands clean with him everywhere. And this secretive surgical team assembled on a yacht that belonged to a friend of the president and performed a surgery on him to remove the tumor, which involved carving a chunk out of his palate and removing part of his jawbone to ensure they got it all. Also in secret, a dentist created prosthetics for the president’s mouth that would cover the giant hole and ensure that he could speak just like he did before the surgery.
This was a daring surgery, and the fact that Cleveland lived 15 years beyond it is a testament not only to his own constitution, but to the surgical team he assembled.
And it was a cover-up of monumental proportions. It worked, until an enterprising reporter got the scoop of his life. However, nobody believed him because Cleveland’s reputation for honesty kept the rest of the media on his side.
This is the story of a presidential cover-up; the disgrace of a darn good investigative reporter who was right all along; an era of grifting, gold-digging, corporate and robber baron excess; a bitter and vitriolic battle over economic stability; and the role of the president in the public trust.
It’s a fast read, and Algeo captures the era superbly. You should be able to pick up how what’s going on now echoes the Gilded Age a century ago, and you might even come to understand why the role of government in worker rights and the fight to curtail corporate excess has always been part and parcel of American history.
So, happy reading!