Cloud of Mistrust Over White House in Case of Secretary Austin’s Cancer Recalls Secret Surgery on Grover Cleveland

The president kept his cancer secret, hidden behind his walrus mustache.

Via Wikimedia Commons
President Cleveland. Via Wikimedia Commons

A cloud of mistrust lingers over the White House as the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, heads home from cancer surgery. It’s a moment to remember the masquerade of President Cleveland, who managed to have a tumor removed while keeping the press in the dark.

The Pentagon said on Monday that Mr. Austin’s “cancer was treated early and effectively, and his prognosis is excellent.” However, because Mr. Austin tried to keep his surgery hidden from even President Biden, citizens are skeptical.

Particularly because America is entangled in wars abroad and is strikes targets across the Mideast. That’s a contrast to the crisis over Cleveland, whose discovery that he had cancer was made when America was at peace — but grappling with the Panic of 1893.                           

The Panic — what we’d call a depression — began in May 1893 and lasted until November. Americans hoarded dollars and made a run on gold, depleting the Treasury’s reserves to dangerous levels. Businesses shuttered. Employees weren’t paid. Hundreds of banks failed. On “Industrial Black Friday,” the stock market crashed.

In March, just after Grover Cleveland began his second, non-consecutive term, the president’s doctor, Major Robert O’Reilly, discovered a tumor “nearly the size of a quarter with cauliflower granulation” on the roof of the president’s mouth.

As terrifying as a cancer diagnosis is now, it was far more so then — and upon that clump of cells, the fate of the nation hinged. To rescue the economy from its tailspin, Cleveland was pushing to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and restore the gold standard.

Cleveland planned a speech to Congress to drum up support and news of his affliction would be a disaster. So, on July 1, he went under the knife aboard a yacht bobbing on the East River. To the public, it was meant to look like Cleveland’s latest fishing trip.

Doctors excised a chunk of Cleveland’s jaw and five teeth. The cover story held — until one of Cleveland’s doctors leaked to a Philadelphia Press reporter, E.J. Edwards, and it was time for some Gilded Age spin.

On July 8, the Sun reported about Cleveland’s health at the top of the front page. “There is no cause whatever for uneasiness,” a presidential surgeon, Dr. Joseph Bryant, dissembled to our reporter. Pressed on the tumor rumor, the doctor called it “false, absolutely false.”

Bryant said, “The president has had no trouble whatever of a malignant or cancerous character.” When the Sun asked about surgery, the doctor said there had been none, “unless you can call the extraction of a tooth an operation.” The event had been a “trifle;” the rumors about the fishing trip were “ridiculous.”

Five days later, in another page one story, the Sun reported that the country had “no more cause for apprehension about the president’s health than it had” at his “cold and wet” inauguration.  It also included an “incidental attack” by the White House on Vice President Adlai Stevenson.

Although a Democrat, Cleveland opposed his party’s silver — inflationary — faction. Had Stevenson succeeded him, the campaign to end silver coinage and safeguard the gold standard would have suffered. The president’s reputation for staunch honesty helped marginalize the silverites and sell the denials about cancer.

The Sun reported that the public had “absolute trust” in Cleveland’s “political integrity.” It had found no evidence that he was “affected by any chronic or dangerous disease, such as was idly and stupidly rumored.”

After Cleveland’s speech, the Democratic-controlled House repealed the silver clauses. The Panic ebbed, although the economy remained depressed until McKinley, a staunch Republican and supporter of the gold standard, acceded to the presidency 1897. He would sign the Gold Standard Act in 1900.

“In wartime,” Winston Churchill said, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Cleveland faced a peacetime crisis but — helped by his walrus mustache — hid the truth, ensuring the situation he handed McKinley wasn’t as dire as it might’ve been.

Mr. Biden is the oldest president and denying rumors about his health will be harder thanks to Mr. Austin. The White House has learned a hard lesson: Keeping secrets is harder than it was 130 years ago; so, transparency is best — especially if you don’t have Cleveland’s reputation for honesty to help sell your fish stories.

The New York Sun

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