Sunday, March 18, 2007

March 18, 1837:

Grover Cleveland’s Birthday

“Glover Cleveland/Really fat/Elected twice as a Democrat…”
-- “The Presidents,” sung by the Animaniacs

By most estimates, Grover Cleveland, uniquely the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, was the second-heaviest president thus far, bested in that distinction only by William Howard Taft, who was elected in the decade after Cleveland left office. When Cleveland was first elected, he probably weighed about 280 lbs.

As a child Cleveland was "chubby and large for his age. For most of his life ... he had a tendency to be obese," noted John R. Bumgarner in The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View (1994). Large enough, in fact that young Cleveland was “Uncle Jumbo” to nephews and nieces.

No doubt it was a genetic propensity, plus diet, plus the 19th-century thinking that successful people ought to be rotund, both as a sign of success and as insurance against “wasting” diseases. Those things, and the fact that he really liked beer. Paul F. Boller Jr., in Presidential Anecdotes (1981), relays the following story about Cleveland’s campaign for district attorney of Erie County, NY in 1870:

“[Cleveland] and his friendly opponent, Lyman K. Bass, agreed to drink only four glasses of beer daily. But after they had met a few times on warm summer evenings to talk things over, they decided that their ration was too skimpy and so began to ‘anticipate’ their future supply. A few evenings later, Bass suddenly exclaimed: ‘Grover, do you know we have anticipated the whole campaign?’ Cleveland nodded sorrowfully. The next night, however, both of them brought huge tankards to the saloon, christened them ‘glasses,’ and had no problem with the ration after that.”

All in all, his size didn’t inhibit Cleveland’s success or popularity as a politician. After all, he was president twice and actually won the popular vote for that office three times in a row, in 1884, 1888 and 1892 – no other president ever did that except for four-timer FDR.

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