The thirty-second vice-president of the United States, John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner (1868-1967) was a wily Texas politician and master of the legislative process. He was also the most powerful man in Congress when he chose to join Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the Democratic ticket for the 1932 presidential election.
It is one of the most revered of US political traditions, but John Nance Garner actually was born in a log cabin near the town of Detroit, Texas, in the northeastern part of the state, on November 22, 1868. He was the son of a cavalryman under General Joseph Wheeler. Garner entered Vanderbilt University at age 18, but remained there only one semester before returning home. His reasons for leaving Vanderbilt are unknown though it has been speculated that Garner suffered from poor health during his short time there. Upon returning to Texas Garner studied law in the Clarksville, Texas office of Captain M. L. Simms; he was admitted to the Texas state bar in 1890. Soon after this he made his first run for elected office, but was defeated for the position of Clarksville city attorney. Afterward he picked up roots and moved to Uvalde where he joined the law firm of Clark and Fuller.
It was in Uvalde where Garner won his first election— judge of Uvalde County—in 1893. Actually Garner had already been county judge for a year by the time he won the 1893 election, having been appointed to fill a vacancy. By then he was not only an up-and-coming lawyer and budding politician, but also a newspaper editor: he had received the Uvalde Leader as a fee for his services. In the race for the judgeship his main opponent was Mariette Rheiner, whom he defeated, courted, and finally married on November 25, 1895. Garner served as county judge until 1896. Two years later he was elected to the Texas state legislature, where he served until 1902. In the state legislature Garner supported ranchers' and livestock growers' issues; he also served on the appropriation committee. It was as a state representative that Garner earned the sobriquet "Cactus Jack" for his strident though unsuccessful championing of the cactus as the Texas state flower.
Entered the House of Representatives
The other important, indeed career boosting, event during his tenure in the state legislature came when he was appointed to a committee to help draw up a new federal district in Texas. The result was the new 58th congressional district. Larger in area than many states, it included Uvalde and sent as its first representative to the United States House of Representatives none other than John Nance Garner. In all Garner would serve 15 terms in the House of Representatives, rising to that body's highest position.
The first decade or so of Garner's congressional career was quite inauspicious. He entered the House on November 9, 1903, but it wasn't until January 1905 that he spoke his first word in Congress and not until 1911 that he gave his first speech. Needless to say he introduced very few bills during his 30 years in Congress. What he did do was learn how to master the legislative process. He was a conservative Democrat (opposed to Prohibition, women's rights, and the KKK) who had the knack for steering others' bills through the tricky legislative waters. Garner did this by practicing behind-the-scenes crony politics, by which he also managed to have a new federal building and a new post office built in his district. These projects contributed to his primary goal of getting reelected. Eventually Garner acquired enough seniority in his party to be elected the Democratic House whip in 1909. (The whip is a party's number two leader, responsible for, among other things, rounding up necessary votes). When the Democrats recaptured the White House, under Woodrow Wilson (28th US president, 1913-1921), Garner was an influential man on Capitol Hill. During the war he became the administration's liaison with the House of Representatives.
Speaker of the House
By the end of World War I, Garner had his sights set on the House speakership. Following reelection in 1922, after which the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, Garner became the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He had many friends on both sides of the aisle, which was as much a testament to his quiet, pragmatic backroom political style as anything else. Garner was one of Congress's legendary whiskey-drinking poker players in his day. In order to convince recalcitrant colleagues to vote for bills he favored, Garner would invite them to his office to share a drink or two of bourbon and branch water, a method of arm twisting that, in those days of Prohibition, he termed "striking a blow for liberty." During the 71st Congress (1929-30) he was minority leader and after the 1930 election when the Democrats once again captured the majority of seats in the House, he was named Speaker for the 72nd Congress, beginning in 1931. His policy during these early Depression years endorsed a budget that would be balanced by a national sales tax.
Garner was Speaker of the House of Representatives for only a few months when a new prize was dangled before his eyes—the presidency itself. His conservative views (which had always put him in good standing with the Republicans) now made him the darling of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who decided to promote Garner for the Democratic nomination. Garner himself seemed largely indifferent to the proposal, but during the Democratic convention he managed to accumulate enough support, namely the Texas and California delegates, to temporarily slow down the Roosevelt steamroller. The convention was deadlocked after three ballots. When Garner released his 90 delegates just prior to the fourth, and they went over to Roosevelt, Garner found himself in his familiar influential position. Roosevelt, partly in gratitude and partly to neutralize a potential future rival, offered Garner the second slot on the Democratic ticket. To everyone's surprise Garner accepted, albeit somewhat reluctantly. With Franklin Roosevelt's electoral victory on November 8, 1932 Garner became the 32nd vice-president of the United States. Possibly hedging his bet, he was also reelected to Congress that same day though he resigned his congressional seat on March 4, 1933, the day he was sworn in as vice-president.
Garner was nothing if not a true party loyalist and as such he put aside his conservative views to support FDR's New Deal. In fact by most accounts Garner was the second most important person in the New Deal, which meant he (temporarily) elevated the importance and power of the vice-presidency. Garner's tenure was in contrast to his often quoted description that vice-presidency wasn't "worth a bucket of warm spit." (Being a colorful Texas politician Garner often claimed that the journalists had cleaned up his language.) Garner also said: "A great man may be vice-president but he can't be a great vice-president, because the office in itself is unimportant." This less quoted description begs the question: Why did Garner relinquish the post of Speaker of the House for such an "unimportant office"? The usual answer is that he hoped to use it as a springboard for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940. However years later Garner admitted the decision to accept the vice-presidential nomination was the "worst damn-fool mistake I ever made. Should have stuck with my old chores as Speaker of the House. I gave up the second most important job in the government for one that didn't amount to a hill of beans."
Despite their differing political views Garner and Roosevelt enjoyed a good relationship (FDR also loved to play poker). The president even referred to Garner as "Mr. Common Sense." Garner still had a lot of influence on Capitol Hill, especially through the Texas congressional delegation. Eight Texans chaired regular committees and two chaired special committees between 1933 and 1937. Garner used these connections to push through quite a bit of New Deal legislation. He also sat in on cabinet meetings and became the first vice-president to travel abroad on official business: He went to Mexico, Japan and the Philippines.
Garner's relationship with Roosevelt began to decline in 1936 and continud to deteriorate throughout their second term. Together they won reelection by trouncing Republican candidates Governor Alf Landon of Kansas and Chicagoan Frank Knox, but it was clear that Garner was already showing an independent streak. His dormant conservatism gradually came awake as he tried to counsel FDR against the continued deficit spending. He was also disturbed by Roosevelt's popularity and his influence in congressional races. Probably the end of their working relationship came with Roosevelt's now infamous attempt to pack the Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices from 9 to 15. From then on there was hostility behind the civility between Garner and Roosevelt. When the latter suspected Garner of leaking Cabinet discussions the government's serious business took place in private meetings that excluded Garner while the Cabinet meetings were held merely as window dressing. Throughout Roosevelt's second term Garner was the de facto leader of the loyal opposition, that is, the conservative Democrats, which made him a powerful politician in Roosevelt's New Deal coalition.
Split with Roosevelt
By 1939 Garner had revived his eight-year old dream of running for the presidency with good reason—he assumed he had history on his side. What Garner did not count on was that he did not have FDR on his side. No president had served more than two terms (a precedent set by Washington), but Roosevelt broke with tradition and crushed Garner's hopes. Not that Garner had much chance by 1940. He was nearly 72 years old and the times had passed him by. The previous year he had alienated himself from African Americans and liberals by refusing to endorse a Marian Anderson concert. Later in 1939 he proved no friend to labor by opposing changes in the Wages-Hours Act. For this CIO (Congress of Industrial Organization) leader John L. Lewis branded Garner "a poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, labor-baiting, evil old man."
The 1940 Democratic convention was Garner's political swan song. In the battle for the presidential nomination he was crushed by Roosevelt: 946 votes to 61. He had already made it clear that he would not serve a third term as vice-president (two terms was also the precedent for that position). At any rate Roosevelt, looking for someone to continue the New Deal should he die in office, chose Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.
Garner retired to Uvalde and did a nearly unheard of thing: He (or possibly his wife, the story is conflicting) destroyed all of his public and private papers instead of depositing them in either a Texas research library or the Library of Congress itself. This action has left a void in Texas' political history and hindered New Deal scholars as well.
Garner lived in retirement for another 27 years, far outlasting Roosevelt and even his protege, Sam Rayburn. He lived long enough to witness the ascension of another Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, on a similar path from Congressional power to the vice-presidency, and then to the presidency. Garner died in Uvalde, Texas on November 7, 1967—just fifteen days shy of his ninety-ninth birthday.
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