A true tale of a president's secret surgery

"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 Matthew Algeo (Chicago Review Press, 272 pages, $24.95)

Think of a U.S. president who hid a serious medical problem from the country while in office.

Kennedy, FDR and Wilson all spring to mind.

How about a chief executive who condoned a cover-up and directed his people to discredit a reporter? The list starts with Nixon, but he has company.

Now, who did both of these things while being famous, in his day, for his honesty?

Class, Matthew Algeo would like to introduce you to Grover Cleveland (1837-1908). If you know him at all, it's probably as an oddity: the only president who served two nonconsecutive terms (1885-89 and 1893-97).

Shortly after his second term began, Cleveland boarded a friend's yacht and sailed into the Long Island Sound where surgeons, in a makeshift operating theater, cut away cancerous tissue in his mouth and part of his jawbone.

Why did doctors perform this risky operation in such a haphazard setting? Algeo explains the historical situation crisply. Cancer was virtually taboo in Cleveland's day. He didn't want to lose public confidence or become a spectacle like former President Grant, who had died from cancer.

Also, Cleveland was in a contentious political struggle over the gold standard. Cleveland feared that should he become incapacitated, his vice president, Adlai Stevenson, would assume power and sway the country's financial direction.

The yacht's crew and surgeons kept mum, except for a dentist serving as anesthetist, who told a fellow doctor. Word found its way to Philadelphia Press reporter E.J. Edwards, who confirmed enough of the tale to print it. Cleveland's circle undermined the reporter's reputation. "The policy here has been to deny and discredit his story," Cleveland wrote to a friend. His people passed off the president's medical event as the pulling of two teeth. Only decades later would one of the surgeons tell all in an article, and make amends to Edwards for the harm done to him.

Algeo, a former public radio reporter, has written two other books with long, amusing subtitles: "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip" and "Last Team Standing: How the Steelers and the Eagles —'The Steagles' — Saved Pro Football During World War II." In his Cleveland tale, he mixes narrative and context smoothly, and keeps speculation minimal.

The Cleveland he depicts is a fascinating figure, often a noble one in his dogged dedication to duty. "He came to be known as incorruptible," Algeo writes. In four years, in part because of his reputation for honesty and reform, he went from mayor of Buffalo to governor of New York to president. Yet he also legally paid a substitute $150 to serve in the Civil War in his place and was openly accused of fathering an illegitimate child (he may have been covering for a married friend, Algeo suggests).

In 1975, pathologists examined tissue from Cleveland's oral tumor, still preserved in a Philadelphia museum. They determined it was a verrucous carcinoma, a rare, slow-growing cancer that can occur in the mouths of men who chew tobacco, like the cigar-chomping Cleveland.