by Henry Lane Hull
In these days of political rancor a lesson from the past can be learned from the career of John Nance Garner, a crusty Texan, who became one of the great characters of American history.
He was a Congressman for almost three decades, before serving as Vice President during the first two terms of the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of his birth; he was the last major American political figure to have been born in a log cabin.
As a young man he enrolled at Vanderbilt University, but dropped out after one semester. He read law and became an attorney. In 1893, he ran in the Democratic primary for the position of county judge and was opposed by a woman, Mariette Rheiner, unusual for a time when women did not have the vote in Texas. He won the election, but two years later married his former opponent. Later, after his election to Congress, Mariette worked as his private secretary, as did Bess Truman for her husband, Sen. Harry S. Truman.
He was elected to the Texas legislature and during his term that body considered legislation to adopt a state flower. In the debate on the issue Garner was a vociferous proponent of the prickly pear cactus. He lost in that cause, as the bluebonnet was selected, but he gained the nickname that remained for the rest of his life, “Cactus Jack.”
As was typical of Southern politicians at the onset of the 20th century, in the Texas legislature he supported the poll tax as a way of limiting the electorate. In 1902, he went on to Congress, where he served for 15 terms, the last as Speaker of the House. In 1932, Gov. Franklin Roosevelt of New York selected him as his vice-presidential running mate.
During the first term of the New Deal, Roosevelt and Garner got along well and stuck together for the 1936 election, which resulted in their landslide victory. In the second term, the two parted company on a number of issues, most notably on Roosevelt’s effort to pack the Supreme Court. Garner supported Senators Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and Virginia’s Harry F. Byrd in leading the opposition to what they considered a nefarious plan.
By 1940, Garner and Roosevelt had parted company. Garner wanted to run for President and strongly opposed Roosevelt’s seeking a third term. When he realized he could not get the Democratic nomination, he announced he planned to return to Texas. As he boarded the train at Union Station to return home, he announced that he would be crossing the Potomac for the last time.
Clearly he meant what he said. He was 71 years old, and he lived another 27 years, dying shortly before his 99th birthday. During that time he never returned to Washington. Throughout those years, he became known for his comments, usually made on his birthday from the yard of his home in Uvalde, Texas. Perhaps his most famous adage was that the vice-presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm ____”, which was sanitized to read as a “bucket of warm spit.”
On the morning of his 95th birthday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy called Cactus Jack from Dallas to wish him a happy birthday. A few hours later the President was assassinated. Garner lived on for another five years. He and Schuyler Colfax remain the only two individuals to have served as Speaker of the House and Vice President, and thus the only two to have presided over both chambers of Congress.
By modern standards Garner’s positions on issues such as the poll tax and hiring his wife as his secretary seem antediluvian. During his long retirement, political leaders often sought his advice and he enjoyed spending his time managing his real estate holdings and going fishing. Although he held high office for decades, he came to be known in popular culture for the pithy comments he made off the cuff. Indeed he did “cross the Potomac for the last time” in 1941, and today is more famous for what he said than what he did.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!