Thursday, May 17, 2007

The story of Cactus Jack

A name that has trickled into the British public prints of late is that of John Nance Garner, a.k.a. "Cactus Jack". He seems doomed to be remembered only for declaring the Vice-Presidency of the United States is not worth "a bucket of warm spit". By obvious analogy, this description now applies internationally to almost any job a "heart-beat away from" the top spot (and Malcolm wonders if that expression pre-dates Hella Pick's use).

Malcolm traced the recent currency of this bucket-and-spit term (as we shall see, a misquotation) back to last autumn. By another of those coincidences that aren't, it was employed in short order by John Cruddas in The Tribune of 13th October (and recycled for his campaign website) and then by Peter Dobbie in the Mail on Sunday on 27th November.

The effect of this was to focus Malcolm's beady eye on Garner. Malcolm loves a good story, and stories rarely come better than this one.

Garner was born on 22nd November, 1868: that date will be significant later in this story. He grew up in a log cabin at Blossom Prairie in Red River County, where Texas butts against Arkansas and Oklahoma: already reality seems to stretch into myth. He was the son of a Confederate soldier, just three years after the Civil War. The elder Garner went, successfully, into cotton-farming, and local county politics. The son struggled with education, only reaching 4th Grade, then dropped out of College. He played semi-pro baseball. He somehow scraped the Texas bar exam, and set up as a lawyer. He found he had developed TB, so moved to Uvalde, west of San Antonio, at the other end of the State.

It was still the age when Judge Roy Bean was "the law west of the Pecos"; and Garner habitually carried his Colt on his lawyer's rounds. He was frequently paid in kind, mainly in land. Soon he was possessed of thousands of acres and several businesses, including three banks. More significant for his future career: he learned his drinking and poker from Sheriff Pat Garrett (with whom, at the age of 22, he was horse-breeding near Uvalde).

A vacancy as county judge made Garner run as Democratic candidate: a sure-fire endorsement, except that his drinking-and-gambling reputation went before him. It aroused the voiced antagonism of one Mariette "Ettie" Rheiner (Texan women would not be enfranchised until the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919). Garner courted and married her in short order.

By 1898 Garner was in the State legislature, and served two terms in the Texas House. This was how he acquired the "Cactus Jack" nickname, when he failed to have the cactus named as the state flower. He was more successful as a member of the Committee on Congressional Districts, carving out a new Fifteenth District, which stretched from Corpus Christi on the Gulf to the Rio Grande and Garner termed "the biggest in Texas". It would be his own base for the next three decades.

And so to Washington DC, with Ettie as his secretary working from a K Street lodging house. He was never the best "constituency man" (with the Democratic dominance of Texas, he didn't need to be), rarely returning to his patch: after four terms in the House, he admitted he had never been to five counties of his District. He made few speeches (and would edit even those from the Congressional Record), introduced no legislation. Instead he devoted himself to committee work and to poker schools (making more from the game than from his Congressional salary). This clubiness meant he rose through the ranks: his critics said this owed more to the obituary column than his own abilities.

The Texas Democrats' usual place of resort was (and is) the "Board of Education" (a name supposedly coined by Garner himself), a room in a less-frequented corridor of the Capitol. Here jokes and strategy, gossip and whiskey, cigars and plots were the usual currency: the ultimate smokey backroom. This is where Vice-President Truman was found on 12 April 1945, to be summoned to the White House, where he found he no longer was Vice-President. Garner's rise owes much to this room and the circle who used it. Here Garner, throughout the years of Prohibition, struck his "blow for liberty" by providing bourbon-and-branchwater.

By 1910 Garner was Democratic Party whip, the third ranking member of the House. He was minority leader after the 1928 Republican surge, and Speaker in 1931.

As Speaker, he was a nationally-recognised figure. He was touted, particularly in his home State, as a Presidential candidate. He won the California Democratic primary (though, of course, California did not have the clout and delegation it does today), and went to the Chicago Convention of 1932 with a lock on a clutch of votes. It needed a two-thirds vote of the Convention to nominate a candidate: the 1924 Convention had gone to 103 ballots. In 1932 the first ballot went FDR with 666 votes, Al Smith 201, Garner with 90 and seven others sharing the remaining 195. After two more ballots, it was still deadlock. The deal that made Garner (advised by William Randolph Hearst: both were opposed to Al Smith) the candidate for Veep was parlayed by Texan Senator Tom Connally and FDR's fixer, James Farley. When Garner released his bloc to FDR, it provoked a stampede of other delegates. The rest is, indeed, history.

Garner went on record to regret surrendering his power base in the House: "the biggest damn-fool mistake I ever made". Instead he inherited the celebrated "bucket of warm piss" (his opinion to LBJ after 1940). He served two terms as Vice-President before retiring to Uvalde: by then he had broken with FDR over the need for a more balanced budget and the Court Packing Plan. It was FDR's decision to go for a third term (Garner still had ambitions) that was the clincher.

After that, Garner rarely ventured north, even more so after Ettie's death in 1948. He himself outlived his contemporaries. A visit to his cottage in Uvalde became the norm for national leaders visiting Texas. Which brings Malcolm to the last irony.

On the morning of his 95th birthday he received a visit from the President. Garner was delighted: "You're my president and I love you. I hope you stay in there forever." The President then left for an engagement in Dallas. Anyone missing the significance could now refer back to Malcolm's fourth paragraph.

When he died, three weeks short of his 99th birthday, Garner was (and still is) the longest-lived occupant of either major office of State. Quite a life. Quite an odyssey. Sphere: Related Content

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