By Ryan S. Walters
The 2016 presidential race was shaken up recently with the leak of private audio revealing that Republican nominee Donald Trump said something vulgar 11 years ago as a private citizen in what he thought was a private setting. Trump has since apologized.
The timing of the release of the audio couldn’t have been more suspicious, coming just as more revelations divulged more Clinton corruption. Wikileaks released thousands of emails from Clinton aide John Podesta that included snippets of some of Hillary’s secret Wall Street speeches and the illegal campaign coordination with a Super PAC, while a Gucifer disclosure exposed the existence of a Clinton Foundation “pay for play” folder.
Yet the big political talk centered not on Hillary’s corruption – not even her statement in a speech to a foreign bank that she desired “open trade and open borders” throughout the Western Hemisphere – but on Trump’s verbal gaffe, with major Republican leaders cancelling campaign events, while others are calling on the presidential nominee to leave the race in favor of Mike Pence.
As a historian I can tell you we’ve seen this same song and dance before, in the 1884 presidential campaign that turned out to be one of the nastiest on record. That race, like this one, featured two Northern candidates, including a New Yorker, Governor Grover Cleveland, who faced off against James G. Blaine from Maine, a former Speaker of the House, US Senator, and Secretary of State.
Like Trump, Grover Cleveland had very little experience in public life but he did have some – three years as a sheriff, one as mayor of Buffalo, and two as governor – and was known as an honest man without even so much as a shred of public corruption. His moniker was “a public office is a public trust,” a motto he took to heart.
Like Clinton, James G. Blaine was the epitome of corruption, with public indecency that was so bad his political enemies made up an unflattering song about him, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the State of Maine.” He was a man with a reputation of being bought and paid for by the special interests of the day, a “tool of the railroad ring,” it was said.
One of Blaine’s worst scandals, oddly enough, was a corrupt Arkansas land deal in the 1860s that involved the then-House Speaker securing a land grant for a railroad in exchange for a hefty commission on bonds he sold to friends in Maine. And when the House investigated his dealings, Blaine lied, because he could.
To make matters worse, Blaine had written a series of letters to Warren Fisher, one of the railroad contractors, which incriminated him in the corrupt deal. At the end of each one he penned the admonition “Burn this letter.” But Fisher’s clerk, James Mulligan, kept copies of the letters. Like Nixon’s Watergate tapes, the Mulligan letters only proved Blaine’s corruption, and kept him from being able to continue lying about it now that they were public.
Democrats had a field day when the letters broke. During Democratic rallies crowds shouted “Burn, burn, burn this letter!” Blaine, wrote Republican reformer Carl Schurz, “wallowed in the spoils like a rhinoceros in an African pool.” He simply could not be trusted with the presidency.
However, a comparison of the private lives of the candidates was another matter altogether. There were no serious allegations of private immorality leveled against Blaine, although Democrats did try to make up an unflattering story about his marriage, which Cleveland refused to use. Not so with Cleveland, who was suspected of fathering a child out of wedlock 10 years before, a story that broke as a campaign “October Surprise.”
The backstory was this: Maria Crofts Halpin, a widow woman of very questionable morals, gave birth to a boy in 1874, a child she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Oscar Folsom, a law partner of Cleveland’s was involved with Mrs. Halpin, along with several other men in Buffalo, a group that might also include Cleveland. When the child was born, Halpin pinned the blame on Cleveland, who reluctantly took responsibility and paid child support, at least for one year.
Whether or not Cleveland believed himself to be the father is unknown, but he never visited the child and later, with the help of a local judge, had the boy sent to an orphanage and Mrs. Halpin placed in an insane asylum after she fell victim to alcoholism.
One likely explanation for Cleveland’s conduct in the matter is the protection of his best friend, Oscar Folsom. Since he was the only bachelor among those involved with Halpin, he took the blame in order to protect both the reputation and marriage of Folsom. This was more in line with Cleveland’s integrity, stepping in to protect his friend’s honor, to his own embarrassment.
By 1884, though, Folsom had been dead nine years, having been killed in 1875, so Cleveland could have easily followed the advice of his campaign advisors and “lie like a gentleman” to save his campaign. But Cleveland, honorable to the end, refused to throw Folsom under the bus.
In the end the storm blew over. For voters in 1884, a smidgeon of private faults in one candidate did not override what was a widely seen as a mass of serious public corruption in the other. Cleveland won in a close race.
As has been said repeatedly throughout the 2016 race, Clinton is accused of a multitude of corrupt acts and even outright crimes, from Benghazi to the email scandal to the cesspool called the Clinton Foundation, not to mention those of bygone years, all while compared to Trump’s private imperfections, centering on a few nasty remarks made years ago and now all the women who have come forward, all of a sudden, to hurl nasty accusations against him, though their credibility is greatly in question, to say the least.
So the real question for 2016 is exactly the same as it was in 1884: Are voters willing to accept a candidate who has a good track record in public life but has a few moral failings in private, or one who seems fairly clean in private but is without question notoriously corrupt after many years of public service?
The issue is as simple as that.