HE SUCCEEDED SAM HOUSTON as Texas’ most colorful politician. Born in 1868 in Blossom Prairie, John Nance Garner settled in Uvalde and in 1903 was elected to Congress, where he served fifteen terms and eventually became Speaker of the House. He fostered the careers of many other Texas Democrats—notably Sam Rayburn—and his bristling eyebrows, white Stetson, and ever-present stogie made him a favorite of political cartoonists. In 1932 he ran for president and easily won the Texas and California primaries; for shifting his support to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was rewarded with the vice-presidential slot. However, he and Roosevelt split angrily over New Deal policies (Garner wouldn’t woo labor, for one thing), and in 1940, after a futile run against two-termer FDR, he retired to Uvalde.
Garner acquired the nickname Cactus Jack as a state representative, when he championed the prickly pear blossom over the bluebonnet for state flower.
During his run for county judge in 1893, one of his most vocal opponents was a young lady named Mariette Rheiner. He won the race—and her hand—and she worked as his secretary for the next 53 years.
Despite suffering from tuberculosis as a youth, he smoked cigars all his life and lived to be 98. He also enjoyed whiskey, averring, “I’m living a good Christian life. I don’t get drunk but once a day.”
He served in the U.S. House eight years before giving a speech.
When he broke his gavel calling the House to order, admirers deluged him with replacements—a total of 189, including ones made of pecan wood, mesquite, raw-hide, buckhorn, and walrus ivory.
At age 69, he shot an eight-point buck on a hunting trip and lugged it back to camp himself. He habitually retrieved beer bottles thrown aside by fellow hunters so he could redeem them for cash.
A baseball fan, he was an honorary umpire during a New York Yankees game.
His most widely reported wisecrack was that the vice presidency “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” In fact, the exact phrase he used was “a pitcher of warm piss,” and he complained that “those pantywaist writers wouldn’t print it the way I said it.”
During the forties, his wife burned all his public and private papers.
On his ninety-fifth birthday, Garner interrupted a party to accept a congratulatory phone call from President John F. Kennedy. The date was November 22, 1963.