John Nance Garner spent his entire adult life working his way up to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and then gave it up to become Vice President. He later said it was the “worst damn fool mistake I ever made.”
John Nance Garner was the son of a Confederate soldier. As a youth, he planned to be a professional baseball player. He played semi-pro ball for a while, but it didn’t work out. He then enrolled in Vanderbilt University, but his fourth grade education had not prepared him well enough; he dropped out after only a month. He returned to Texas, and managed to pass the bar examination, and joined a local law firm.
Shortly after beginning his law practice, Garner learned that he had tuberculosis. He moved to the town of Uvalde in southwest Texas, hoping the drier air would restore his health. He did very well in Uvalde, acquiring three banks, several businesses, and thousands of acres of land in addition to building a successful law practice.
At 25 years of age, he became a local judge. From there he went to the Texas legislature. In 1902, he was elected to his first term in the U. S. House of Representatives. Garner won re-election 14 times, rarely returning to his home district, rarely campaigning or making speeches. After his fifth election to the House, he admitted that he had never been in five of the counties in his district.
Garner was not a hard worker in Congress. He made few speeches and introduced no important legislation. A critic once said that Garner advanced in the House of Representatives “mainly because of the obituary column.” But Garner had more going for him than just seniority.
Garner played poker and drank “bourbon and branch water” with his House colleagues. He referred to his drinking as “striking a blow for liberty” but others said he was violating the Constitution, since prohibition (the 18th Amendment) was in effect for most of his time in Congress. His winnings at poker exceeded his annual salary for a number of his years in Congress.
Where Garner secured his leadership position in the House was at his daily meetings of the “Board of Education.” He made enough friends and influenced enough members to get himself elected House Minority Leader in 1929. He was just one step away from his dream of becoming Speaker of the House.
In the 1930 elections, the Democrats took control of the House with a majority of just a single seat. But it was enough to make “Cactus Jack” Garner Speaker of the House. As Speaker, “Cactus Jack” continued his Board of Education meetings, using them to plan the schedule of the House, influence decisions, and educate new members. At closing time in the House, Garner would say, “Boys, let me stick my finger in the mouth of my pet snake and see if he’ll bite me this afternoon. Because if he does, as he had in the past, I will be in need of the cure, and we will have to go to the Board of Education room and take care of the situation pronto.”
Garner had the position he had dreamed of, and would have been very happy if he and just stayed there. But after only a year, he got ambitious. Garner had been talked into running for President by William Randolph Hearst, who needed a candidate who would follow his lead. With Hearst’s backing, Garner bought a lot of air time on the NBC radio network to explain his views. He gained much support, and even captured control of the California and Texas delegations to the Democratic Convention. He did not gain as much support as Franklin Roosevelt, however, and neither man was able to gain the nomination.
Roosevelt’s people were able to gain Hearst’s support after making some concessions, and Hearst called Garner to tell him the news. Garner had already realized that he wasn’t able to get the nomination, and felt he was closer to Roosevelt than he was Al Smith, the other major candidate. Roosevelt agreed to give Garner the second spot on the ticket in exchange for his support. Garner threw his support to FDR, and Roosevelt got the nomination on the next ballot.
Roosevelt needed Garner’s help. Roosevelt, urbane and liberal, was not very strong in the south. Garner would deliver the more conservative southern states. Also, Garner’s presence on the ticket would show a united Democratic Party in the coming campaign. For the sake of his party, Garner gave up the powerful position of Speaker for the powerless position of Vice President.
By tradition, the vice presidential candidate was expected to campaign vigorously on behalf of the ticket. To FDR’s chagrin, Garner continued his congressional practice of little or no campaigning. Garner made only one speech on behalf of the Democratic ticket. He told Roosevelt, “Hoover’s making speeches, and that’s enough for us.” Still, FDR and Cactus Jack won by a landslide.
After the election, Garner almost became president before he became vice president. Two weeks before the inauguration, an immigrant named Joseph Zangara tried to assassinate FDR. He missed President-elect Roosevelt, but killed Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago. If Roosevelt had been killed, according to the Constitution, Garner would have become president.
Once he became Vice President, Garner found that he didn’t enjoy presiding over the Senate as much as he did the House. He did not have the friendly following that he had built up in his many years in the House. Also, the presiding officer of the Senate had much less to do and much less influence than the presiding officer did in the House. Feeling the job was an eight-to-five job, he refused to engage in the traditional evening socializing expected of the Vice President. In spite of these problems, Garner proved to be extremely valuable to Roosevelt in helping him to get his legislation through the Congress.
In 1936, Roosevelt and Garner were re-elected by the largest majority up to that time. But after the election, the professional relationship between FDR and Garner took a turn for the worse. Garner grew concerned as Roosevelt’s proposals became increasingly liberal. He warned FDR that “the boys up on Capitol Hill” were becoming increasingly alarmed.
Roosevelt decided he would actively oppose the re-election of any Democrat who didn’t strongly support the New Deal. This upset Cactus Jack. But Roosevelt’s plan to increase the size of the Supreme Court upset Garner even more.
The Supreme Court had been declaring major parts of the New Deal unconstitutional, and Roosevelt had gone through an entire four-year term without the opportunity to name a Supreme Court member. He now planned to add six people to the court. Rather than support his president, Garner let everyone know he opposed the plan. He walked through the Capitol holding his nose and gave the thumbs-down sign whenever the idea was mentioned. When the legislation came before the Senate, Garner went home on vacation so that he would not have to vote on the measure in case of a tie. Roosevelt angrily order Garner back to Washington, but Garner stayed in Texas and skipped the vote.
When Garner returned to Washington, he found himself increasingly excluded from the inner circle. Cabinet meetings were more social occasions with the real business conducted after Garner left. Garner did not seem to mind missing the meetings, which he referred to as Roosevelt’s “prayer meetings.”
Garner called Roosevelt “the most destructive man in all American history.” FDR was no longer a big fan of Garner’s either. FDR was particularly upset when Garner greeted the King of England by slapping him on the back.
The final break came when Roosevelt announced he would run for a third term. Garner had planned to run himself, but knew he could not because of Roosevelt’s popularity and control of the Democratic Party. He also felt strongly about the two-term tradition, saying “I wouldn’t vote for my own brother for a third term.” Garner ran against Roosevelt, but didn’t do nearly as well as he had in 1932. On the first ballot, Garner won 61 votes to FDR’s 946. Garner did not take his overwhelming defeat well. He returned to his home in Texas, and never returned to Washington to preside over the Senate for the remainder of his term.
Cactus Jack Garner stayed active in Democratic politics for many years. Many Democratic leaders made visits to his Texas ranch. Each year on his birthday, Garner held a press conference and repeated his well-known opinion about the vice-presidency, which he called the “unnecessary office.” Garner once told Lyndon Johnson that the vice-presidency “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit,” because “the Vice President is just a waiting boy, waiting just in case something happens to the President.” Actually, he said something less polite, but the press cleaned it up before quoting him. In spite of his advice, Johnson accepted the vice-presidential nomination.
On Garner’s 95th birthday, President John F. Kennedy paid him a visit while he was in Texas to wish him a happy birthday. Garner told Kennedy, “You’re my president and I love you. I hope you stay in there forever.” Kennedy was shot and killed later that day.
Garner died in 1967, just two weeks short of his 99th birthday.