VP John Nance Garner: “Cactus Jack”

The longest lived Vice President was FDR’s first VEEP, John Nance Garner. He lived to be just shy of his 99th birthday.

JNG: Rural Texan

John Nance Garner (1867-1965) lived between Johnsons: born during VP-turned-POTUS Andrew Johnson’s administration, and died during the term of VP-turned-POTUS Lyndon Johnson.

cactusjack garner

The young John Nance Garner. between state and national office, he would spend more than forty years in office.

He came from rural Texas, and lived in rural Texas all his life. The small-in-stature poor farm boy briefly attended Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, but withdrew because of ill health (although some say he was not academically prepared for higher learning).

The “health” part was true, and Garner consulted a physician who suggested a warm climate, further intimating that he should not expect a long life. Garner moved to Uvalde, Texas, a hot desert town near the Mexican border, adjusted his attitude on living, and proved his doctor wrong.

Garner duly “read law” and was admitted to the Texas bar. He immediately gravitated to politics, and was elected as a “solid South” Democrat to the state legislature in 1898.

“Cactus Jack” is Born

Most people surmised that his famous “Cactus Jack” nickname came from his prickly personality (which he had), or even from his sharp way with words, also one of his natural gifts. But the nickname came elsewhere.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Texas legislature decided to choose a “state flower.” John Nance Garner, firmly entrenched in Uvalde with its hot, dry climate, nominated the “prickly pear cactus,” and true to his bantam rooster posturing, promoted his cause aggressively, thus earning his nickname.

He lost to the bluebonnet, which still remains the Texas state flower.

JNG: Congressional Jack

Garner was elected to Congress in 1902, and was devoted to his district, took care of its needs and was re-elected regularly with very little opposition. He served his constituents well and they were appreciative.

john nance garner

Garner was a popular Congressman on both sides of the aisle.

His politics were conservative and “rural” and even narrow-minded in philosophy, but Garner still made friends easily, notably on both sides of the aisle.

He was also a hard drinker, decidedly opposed to Prohibition, whose laws were easily circumvented in Congress, and a “private” office became nicknamed the “Board of Education.” The less prim and proper legislators who liked their whiskey gravitated after hours, or, as Cactus Jack called it, “Striking a blow for liberty.” Much was and could be accomplished in this “spirit” of camaraderie.

JNG: Speaker at Last

The political party demographics, hugely Republican for a quarter of a century, changed in the 1930s, as the Great Depression began to erode the country’s economy. Congress turned Democratic, and with his years of seniority-cum-personal-relationships, Cactus Jack had a new title and a new persona: Speaker of the House of Representatives. It was the second-highest political post in the country.

Garner had his eye on the top spot however. It was a long shot to be sure, but 1932 would be a Democratic year. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man with a famous name and a winsome charm, had been NY Governor for two terms. His nomination was practically assured, but wheeling and dealing was still required and a vice president was needed. A geo-political balance was important and the deal was struck.

Cactus Jack was not enthusiastic about being VP. No one of importance or political standing had run for vice president since Thomas Jefferson. It was a throwaway job. Honorable and respectable, but according Garner’s colorful prose, “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” Why would he give up the second-most powerful position for something so insignificant?

JNG: Vice President

FDR

FDR and Cactus Jack got on well at first, but the relationship frayed noticeably. Garner was very conservative and grew unhappy with the New Deal.

Nevertheless, whatever bait was offered, Garner bit. Perhaps he believed that at nearly seventy, he better make his move if he ever wanted the top spot.

FDR was elected handily, and set in motion a whirlwind of activity. FDR needed Garner, whose legislative experience was something FDR lacked. Dozens of bills were introduced to Congress during Roosevelt’s “hundred days,” all of them requiring aggressive, yet careful shepherding through the House, where all money legislation originates.

Garner was superb through that first term. His skills, his knowledge, his experience and his energy were used to the fullest, but Garner was a product of the legislative (as opposed to the executive) branch of government, and FDR’s liberal New Deal policies were beginning to clash with the conservative Texan. The relationship began to cool, and Garner began making his own plans for 1940.

FDR’s Third Term

In 1940, JNG was past seventy. It was now or never, and he was vehemently opposed to a third term for the still-popular FDR.

garnerbutton

Garner truly believer he had a chance for the 1940 Presidential nomination, but that was before FDR decided on a third term.

The ties that had been continually fraying between the two men was now at a breaking point. With a World War lapping on US shores, their differences grew even wider. Garner, the isolationist and “traditional” Democrat, found himself at serious odds with the internationalist and liberal FDR.

Anti-third term sentiment was strong enough for Garner to make a concerted effort to challenge Roosevelt, but when the President “allowed himself to be drafted” he won easily.

Garner was now out of political office for the first time in nearly fifty years. He went back to Uvalde, where he lived for another quarter-century, surprising everyone, including himself.

The Garner Legacy

JNG is a forgotten name now, but his TEXAS legacy had long legs. Cactus Jack was without doubt, an extremely effective legislator. While in Congress, he began “grooming” another Texan for leadership: Sam Rayburn.   “Mr. Sam,” as he was nicknamed, earned his own reputation as a potent Speaker of the House. He in turn, cultivated another Texan destined to be the Majority Leader of the Senate, a Vice President himself, and finally President: Lyndon B. Johnson.

On November 22, 1963, Garner’s 95th birthday, President John F. Kennedy called to congratulate him – and even made a special trip to the Garner ranch in Uvalde to film a brief interview with the elderly Texan. Then Kennedy flew to Dallas.

Sources:

Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing

http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/VP_John_Garner.htm

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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