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American Journalism Review
Secret Operation  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 1993

Secret Operation   

By John G. Leyden
John G. Leyden is a Maryland-based freelance writer.      


It seems inconceivable today that a U.S. president could have major surgery and keep it secret from a nosy press corps. But that's exactly what happened 100 years ago this month.

On July 1, 1893, aboard a yacht in the Long Island Sound, surgeons removed a tumor from Grover Cleveland's mouth – and most of his upper left jawbone – plugging the hole with a custom-made rubber plug so he could speak normally.

By July 4, with no sign of the president's yacht after what was supposed to be an overnight trip from New York, reporters waiting at his Cape Cod summer home were restless. To head off speculation, the First Lady insisted she had received word that her husband "was well and in good health."

The president arrived the next day and went into seclusion. A large man who weighed more than 250 pounds, he showed remarkable recuperative powers. However, the operation had been traumatic; he later told Attorney General Richard Olney, "My God, Olney, they nearly killed me." Olney, in turn, told reporters that the president was "doing finely."

The man behind the cover-up, Cleveland's closest friend, Secretary of War Daniel Lamont, handled the press during the recuperation period. He first told reporters the president had suffered an attack of gout, then insisted Cleveland had a bad tooth removed. He also lectured reporters about writing irresponsible stories that might frighten the public.

The strategy worked. The New York Times responded on July 9 by branding rumors that Cleveland was seriously ill as "nonsense." Even seven weeks later, when the Philadelphia Press broke the story of the president's secret operation, the paper was immediately accused of recycling dead rumors.

Why all the secrecy? The "national interest," of course. Cleveland believed disclosure of his illness would weaken his ability to battle a financial panic then gripping the country.

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