The Serenity Pair: Me and Grover Cleveland in the Duck Blind
Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, bore the nickname “Ugly Honest.” He was both, but neither in the extreme sense. While he would win no beauty contests, many of his contemporaries attested that he carried himself with winsome dignity. Though he was a committed truth-teller, he was not slavish to the facts in every jot and tittle. This inflexible-but-not-brittle integrity is evident to those who closely study this portly president’s life. The same man who was willing to go down to electoral defeat over unpopular stands on tariffs and sound money was nevertheless unwilling to reveal a life-threatening surgery for mouth cancer. Why? The elusive answer is best found in duck hunting.
Most who knew him then—and many historians who examine his life now—saw an overweight workaholic who studied documents and statutes into the wee hours of the morning. During his short time as governor of New York, an Albany newspaper captured his routine succinctly:
Plainly he is a man who is not taking enough exercise; he remains indoors constantly, eats and works, eats and works, and works and eats…
A closer look at the man reveals a dedicated fisherman and hunter. Eluding the press to visit a favored stream or bay was part of a renewal rite for spirit, soul and expansive body. I learned of his sporting side when I was researching for a novel that features him prominently. Over the weeks and months of studying this president, I began to bear his posthumous company throughout the day. It could be because we share a love of food and the outdoors…and food obtained from the outdoors. An early biographer saw beyond the working and the eating to discover the fly-fishing and the shooting:
It was his physical salvation, during the trying years of conflict that followed, to be able, when the strain grew unbearable, to take down his beloved rod, or sling over his shoulder his shotgun—modestly named “Death and Destruction”—and seek the restoring balm of God’s glorious solitude. They might slander him, as they did; they might trick him with cunning, deceive him with lies, torture him with reproaches of ingratitude and unfriendliness to friends; but no one could rob him of his duck marshes, or prevent the shy trout and agile bluefish from turning his mind away, for a time, from all worries. God made him a sportsman, and the instinct served him as the protective coloring serves the wild things in the great, free world of outdoors.
My life is not nearly so stressful. The backstabbers, manipulators, haters and cheaters are less plentiful in my day-to-day than in President Cleveland’s political career. Still, he accompanies me to the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey—and other Atlantic Flyway hotspots—as both muse and critic. I need to read Sketches, he tells me. Of course, I have read it. Twice. Fishing and Shooting Sketches was a labor of love for Cleveland when he finally settled into permanent retirement. This book of outdoor reflections goes deep into a man who, though never celebrated as a profound thinker, was a good deal more introspective than his contemporaries believed. He directs me to the relevant passage. It expands on the motivations of the “serene duck hunters”:
It must be frankly confessed that the members of this fraternity cannot claim the ability to kill ducks as often as is required by the highest averages. This, however, does not in the least disturb their serenity. Their compensations are ample. They are saved from the sordid and hardening effects induced by habitual killing, and find pleasure in the cultivation of the more delicate and elevating susceptibilities which ducking environments should invite. Under the influence of these susceptibilities there is developed a pleasing and innocent self-deception, which induces the belief on the part of those with whom it has lodgment, that both abundant shooting skill and a thorough familiarity with all that pertains to the theory of duck hunting are entirely in their possession and control.
So, this scrupulously honest president—whose campaign motto stated “Public Office Is a Public Trust”—found an ethical relief valve in duck hunting. Often accompanied by old law partners or trusted associates, he escaped the public for the marshes and an indulgence otherwise denied in his public life: the fish tale for fowl, where self-promotion and phony rationalization were part of the bonding process. Exaggerations and obfuscations that vexed Cleveland when reviewing veteran pension applications, for example, were both accepted and expected in his familiar blinds among old friends. Whereas he labored mightily to prevent the inflation of the currency with silver coinage, he nevertheless inflated his kill statistics among the gadwalls, wood ducks and mallards of his beloved Adirondacks. As he said, doing so was among the “delicate and elevating susceptibilities” of sportsmanship.
As a whimsical waterfowling companion, he is a less than supportive curmudgeon. When I fail to take down any birds, he snorts contemptuously at my 12-gauge pump action shotgun. You could have bagged your limit with old “Death and Destruction,” he tells me, referring to the rare—if not only—eight-gauge made by Colt for presidential bloodsport. He likewise scoffs at the non-toxic steel shot, refusing to accept ecological explanations for its mandated use, and insisting that it hobbles my shooting performance. The newfangled decoys are not worth the money, he adds gratuitously. And why I chose to hunt on a bluebird day is beyond him. He eyes my dog with pity. Needless to say, I weary of his negativity and prepare to rebuke him, even going so far as addressing him by his unfortunate given name.
I stop short, and remember Sketches.
I picked up hunting in middle age. My gun is just right for a relative newbie. Furthermore, the playing field is level in terms of shot—nobody uses lead anymore. When it comes to realism, my fully flocked decoys beat the wooden blocks of Cleveland’s day hands down. And it is not that nice out, for that matter. No, something is afoot with the late chief executive: he is not harassing me, but instead inviting me to engage in the “innocent self-deception” that attends this activity. Give in, he invites: but for my gun and the shot and the rig and the weather, I would have bagged my limit. It is a harmless, even delightful, indulgence. Give in.
At the same time, I remember that I have two novels and a screenplay in the hopper. My mind is currently immersed in fantasy and I need to come up for air. In the blind, I am forced to face the uncomfortable truth that I still do not hold enough lead when swinging through. Good technique is still counterintuitive to me. The pintails, ring-necks and shovelers fly off in carefree confidence. Were living off the land required of me, I would probably perish. I must face this flaw if I am ever to improve.
In my case, duck hunting clarifies and sobers; it challenges me to live many consecutive hours in the moment. For a president whose every waking hour was necessarily lived in the reality of the moment, duck hunting afforded the opportunity to escape from the harshness of truth. For a writer who likes to make believe for a living, duck hunting pops the bubble of fancy and plunges me into the cold waters of what is.
Perhaps Mr. Cleveland did not intend to impart the lesson that duck hunting adds balance to life regardless of the kind of lives we live. Realism for the escapist or escapism for the realist, this sport fills in whatever void goes unattended during the week. The serene duck hunter, to use President Cleveland’s label, finds pleasure in the experience whether built on facts or fibs. Fishing and Shooting Sketches is a workaholic’s confession that he liked to play…and an honest man’s confession that he derived occasional pleasure from bending the truth. The serenity of duck hunting is in the acknowledgment that each of us has a seldom-revealed alter ego who must be indulged now and then. After all, even Grover’s big game-hunting, hard-charging successor, Theodore Roosevelt, shed his celebrated and never-ending search for outdoor stimuli long enough to design reforms in American spelling.
Was Cleveland’s surgery cover-up akin to his innocuous sporting falsehoods? It is tough to make that case since he was so zealous about maintaining the public trust. At the same time, he may have believed posing—in this case—to be as appropriate before his constituents as it was before his hunting companions. In the marsh there was an unspoken agreement regarding fabrication. Perhaps he held a similarly tacit pact with the American people. After all, a president in robust health packs more political clout than one who is dying. It could be that the earnest Mr. Cleveland observed a maxim later articulated by the novelist Clancy Martin:
Truth and falsehood are like many other things: healthy for us in the right amount.
He is quiet as I’m packing up. I let him brood for a while before asking him what is wrong. He asks why I did not use a single-reed call. I tell him that I used to play the bassoon, and find the double-reed more familiar. Ah, now there’s your problem, the president declares with finality.
 Alyn Brodsky, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 56.
 Robert Mc Elroy, Grover Cleveland: The Man and the Statesman, an Authorized Biography, v.1 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1923), 143.
 Grover Cleveland, Fishing and Shooting Sketches (New York: The Outing Publishing Company, 1906), accessed April 24, 2015, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35351/35351-h/35351-h.htm.
 Clancy Martin, “The Way Things Ought to Be,” review of Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life, by Eric G. Wilson, New York Times, June 21, 2015, Sunday Book Review.