“I have always done what I thought was best for my country, never varying unless I was advised that two-thirds of the Democrats were for a bill and then I voted for it.”–John Nance Garner
The man that FDR called “Mr. Common Sense” was also the quintessential party man for most of his political life, arriving in Congress in 1902 and then going along to get along until he became House Speaker in December, 1931.
The above quote, probably delivered with tongue hidden in cheek, did nevertheless come close to summarizing his guiding principles: country first…so long as the Democratic Party was not harmed in the process. For decades, his personal principles and those of the party were things he could reconcile.
Surely one of the most quotable of vice presidents, especially when discussing the office itself, “Cactus Jack” Garner was the House majority leader before he became speaker. The late Twenties was a time when politicians could be fiercely loyal to their parties but still find common ground with members of the other party.
Garner was a friend of Republican Speaker Nicholas Longworth, the dapper husband of famed Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The two of them held forth at the “Bureau of Education,” a boozy meeting place that followed Speaker Joe Cannon’s “Boar’s Head” example and later became the even more famous “Board of Education” presided over by Sam Rayburn.
The loyalty that marked Jack Garner as minority leader was different from the uncompromising party loyalty of today. He and Longworth, along with other key players, would hammer out bipartisan deals, and it was loyalty to those deals and not to narrow partisan positions that Garner would generate and enforce. Party loyalty was less to exotic or extreme positions than it was to broad agreements; enforcing that kind of loyalty was in fact aimed at reducing the impact of extreme views.
But late in Herbert Hoover’s term, things changed. The parties became sharply divided over the response to the Depression. Garner at first tried to work with the administration, but soon realized that, despite his distaste for government spending, more public works projects had to be forthcoming if the country were to recover.
Suddenly party discipline took on a different aspect. Sam Rayburn remarked that the new Speaker Garner was determined to bind Democratic members to whatever consensus had been reached on relief legislation, and Garner himself said that “if they didn’t stay bound, I’d put ’em down in my book and they’d never get through paying for it.”
At this point, Garner believed that what was good for the country was also what the Democratic party wanted. With growing Democratic strength, Garner’s prospects to remain House Speaker, a job that he loved, would be solid.
With no presidential ambitions himself, Garner nevertheless became the candidate of choice for the irrepressible William Randolph Hearst, along with those who wanted a “Democratic Coolidge,” a man who would not exercise the power of the office to the fullest.
Garner began to gain a little ground at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago as successive ballots were counted. FDR then realized that in order to break the deadlock between him and Al Smith he would need Garner’s delegates, especially those from Mississippi. Roosevelt loyalist Jim Farley met with Sam Rayburn, Garner’s representative at the convention, in the hotel room of one of the senators from Mississippi.
Offered the vice presidency, Garner feared that without his assent the convention would end up with a tepid compromise candidate who would lead the party to another defeat, the fate of Democratic nominee John W. Davis in 1928.
Already on record as saying “I don’t want to spend the next four years counting the buttons on another man’s coattails,” Garner still accepted. At one point he also mused that the job might be “a nice way to taper off my career.” (Late in life, he also said that accepting the vice presidency was “the only demotion I ever had.”)
Despite his own misgivings about the office, his election was wildly popular. On inauguration day, some 400 House members and another 150 members-elect escorted him to the senate chambers, including many Republicans.
The famous quote attributed to him about the office–that it “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit”– first appeared, in somewhat different form, in a 1968 book by former FDR braintruster R. G. Tugwell. Tugwell was one among several of FDR’s intellectual advisers who looked down on Garner, much as John F. Kennedy’s family and advisers did on Lyndon Johnson. To him, Garner was “shrewd, narrow, vulgar, and philistine.”
The feelings were mutual. “I have more honest affection for him [FDR] in my little finger than they have in their whole bodies,” Garner said. In this, he was unlike LBJ.
In any case, Tugwell wrote that he “could still hear the guffaw” of FDR when the new president heard what Cactus Jack said about the “worth” of the vice presidency.
The late Texas Congressman O.C. Fisher, who wrote a biography of Garner (no easy task, see author’s note), claimed that Garner told him that he did not say “warm spit,” but instead said “warm piss.” According to Fisher, Garner said the “pantywaists” who wrote about the issue didn’t have the guts to relate it the way he said it.
Cactus Jack had even more to say about the vice presidency. It was, for example, “the spare tire of government.” But perhaps the greatest story of all about his view of the office was reported in the Houston Post in 1967. Meeting up with a circus clown at the site of political rally, Garner said, “I am vice president of the United States. You’d better stick around for a while–you might pick up some new ideas.”
Loyalty, the First Term, and Huey Long
As a conservative Democrat, Garner didn’t personally support all of the New Deal proposals during the famous Hundred Days, but his official position was that it was both “good politics and good patriotism” to support the president. “Sometimes conditions in a country justify temporary violations of deep principles of government,” he said, and “if ever there was such a time, it is now.”
But there were limits, even in the first term. Garner wouldn’t make speeches, travel to other countries, or disrupt his home life and privacy with the glad-handing duties of the job. He refused protection from the secret service, saying, in words that seem so anachronistic in our day: “I don’t want those constables protecting me. There isn’t anybody crazy enough to shoot the vice president.”
He was a significant force in managing relations with congress, however, and continued to chair the Bureau of Education meetings in a room near the Senate floor. One observer later said, “the whiskey vapor would come flowing into the chamber from the formal office, along with the laughter.”
Garner disliked demagogues as much as he despised disloyalty, and Senator Huey Long of Louisiana hit both nerves.
When Long was filibustering FDR’s National Recovery Act, he told Garner, presiding over the senate, that he wanted Garner to make all the other senators stay and listen to Long’s rantings.
In the first place, the senator from Louisiana should not ask that,” Garner said. “In the second place, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.”
To his friend Will Rogers, Garner said, “Will, sometimes I think the hearing in my right ear and the vision in my right eye aren’t as good as they used to be…Long sits on my right…I may not be able to hear or see Huey this morning.”
But the best was yet to come. One day, Long stood up in the senate chamber and said: “Mr. President, I rise to make a parliamentary inquiry. How should a senator who is half in favor of this bill and half against it cast his vote?”
Garner’s last nerve having been reached, he answered sharply: “Get a saw and saw yourself in two. That’s what you ought to do anyway.”
Loyalty Divided–the Second Term
Garner told friends that he and the president made a deal on inauguration day in 1937, the beginning of their second terms in office: they both would serve out the term and then retire. Some disagreements had occurred between them, but Cactus Jack was still on the team.
On February 5, 1937, the president stunned Garner and other top advisers when he announced his plan to introduce legislation that would expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges. It is interesting to note that Garner was less disturbed about FDR trying to seize too much power than he was about the president’s high-handed way of presenting such a controversial bill without reaching a prior consensus with party leaders, including the vice president.
(As to the merits of the court packing scheme, Garner said, “no president can control that Court.”)
When the bill came to the senate for a vote, Garner was seen to hold his nose and then give a vigorous thumbs down at the announcement of the bill. Then he went home to Uvalde. Roosevelt was angry, as one would expect.
Contacted at home in Texas, Garner placidly told reporters that his departure was no protest. “I asked the boss,” he said, “and he told me it was all right for me to go fishing.”
An even more serious break happened when FDR decided to purge rebellious conservative Democrats by personally campaigning for their opponents during the primary elections of 1938. Not only were many of these men personal friends of Garner, but, as he told FDR, “you can’t defeat the Southern Democrats and if you defeat the Democrats in the North you will get Republicans instead.”
Garner was right. The party lost 81 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. Much of FDR’s agenda died in the Congress of 1939.
“The Worst Mistake I Ever Made”
As the election of 1940 approached, Garner was increasingly uneasy with the president’s consolidation of power. FDR had already paved the way to make the choice of a VP rest with him rather than with convention power brokers–a deal that he might not have been able to make if Garner had not been the incumbent.
In 1939, Garner made history by becoming the first sitting vice president to announce his own candidacy against the president whom he had served. Garner had had enough. The loyalty that had abetted his ascent to the speakership and then to the vice presidency had now turned inward, to his own principles. Surely some of his motivation also came because of his alienation from the president and those now closest to him, a situation to which Garner himself had contributed.
This change did not serve Garner well politically. After Hitler invaded the low countries and then France, the country did not want a different president. Garner, who never blamed FDR personally but rather “the boss’s” increasingly liberal inner circle, retired to Uvalde, vowing never to return to Washington. He never did.
Accepting the vice presidency out of loyalty to the party was “the worst mistake I ever made,” he said later. Had he been speaker during FDR’s presidency, Garner reflected, “I think I could have talked him out of a lot of things…I would have had no desire to dictate his decisions, but there would have been times when I would have told him what he could not do.”
Author’s Note: Biographies of Garner are few. He burned all of his official papers in Uvalde, in 1947. I have relied heavily on the following articles on John Nance Garner: