How Cactus Jack Swayed the 1932 Election

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“Cactus Jack” was not your typical presidential candidate.

Born in a Texas log cabin in 1868, John Nance Garner dropped out of Vanderbilt University after one semester and returned home, where he studied law. He gained admission to the bar in 1890 and secured appointment to a vacant county judgeship.

When elections for a full term came around in 1893, his opponent was Mariette Rheiner, a local rancher’s daughter. Women couldn’t vote then, but they could run for office. Rheiner lost, and two years later Garner proposed to her. She accepted.

In 1898, Garner was elected into the state legislature as a Democrat, and four years later won election to Congress. He and Mariette moved to Washington, where she became his secretary, typing (and perhaps writing) his letters for the next 30 years and earning $325 a month, according to a 1932 Time magazine story.

A reluctant legislator, Garner waited eight years before making his first House speech and never drafted a significant bill. He played poker and drank bourbon with his colleagues straight through Prohibition, at office gatherings of his boozy “Board of Education.” Rumor had it that his poker skills earned him more than his federal salary.

Garner became House minority leader in 1929, at age 61. The 1930 midterm elections brought Democrats a one-seat majority in the House, and Garner became speaker.

He continued his daily meetings of the Board of Education, and sometimes, to close a legislative day, he would announce : “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, I will be in need of the cure and we will have to go to the Board of Education and take care of the situation pronto.”

Nonetheless, Garner ran the House with considerable skill. He understood that “the floor of the House is no place to legislate,” and “when most of the members are present, the House is uncontrollable,” as the New York Times put it.

William Randolph Hearst, the publishing baron and aspiring political kingmaker, took note and backed Garner as an alternative to Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, two New Yorkers who sought to head the 1932 Democratic presidential ticket.

Garner at first refused to declare his candidacy, even when Garner-for-President Texans bought the grand champion ham from the Fat Calf, Pig and Meat Show in Lubbock, Texas , and presented it to him in Washington. He thanked his supporters warmly, emphasizing his love for “good old Texas ham,” especially with “greens on the side,” the New York Times reported.

But he couldn’t resist Hearst’s press and financial support. Once he declared his candidacy, becoming Texas’s favorite was a lock. And, as Will Rogers wrote in his "Daily Telegrams" on May 2, 1932: “Give Garner California and Texas and he will be sitting prettier” than any other candidate, having enough delegates to block a first-ballot decision.

California came through; Garner secured a 45,000 vote plurality over Roosevelt and Smith. The New York Times concluded that the primary’s chief significance was “not that Speaker Garner won, but that Governor Roosevelt lost.”

The July convention in Chicago now promised a hot contest over the opportunity to challenge President Herbert Hoover .

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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