When discussing the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 last weekend, I noted John Nance Garner’s support for using soldiers to bust the strike. It reminded of just how awful Garner was. And how close we were to a Garner presidency in 1940.
We remember that Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in 1940, but we don’t pay much attention to what would have happened had he followed convention and stepped down. The almost certain Democratic nominee would have been John Nance Garner and given the nation’s repudiation of the Republican Party during the 1930s, he would probably have won the Oval Office as well.
Garner really wanted the job. I mean, he wanted it BAD. Garner was furious that FDR was going to run for a 3rd term and did everything in his power to outmaneuver Roosevelt. Most of what I know about this is from Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, about the early years of Lyndon Johnson. Essentially, LBJ catapulted himself up the Democratic Party power structure by selling his fellow Texans who had lined up behind Garner down the river, giving his support to Roosevelt and then taking over the running of Congressional elections around the county that fall, likely saving the House for the Democrats. That’s why Caro goes into such detail on Garner. At this point in his biographical sweep, Caro didn’t much care for Johnson, but he certainly preferred him to Garner. For good reason.
“Cactus Jack” Garner hated the New Deal. He was a Dixiecrat through and through. Garner was OK with the emergency measures of 1933, but began revolting against FDR by late 1934. Garner loathed government spending. He was however a loyal man and kept his complaining to private letters to FDR and close friends.
Garner hated one thing more than the New Deal: people of color. A man of west Texas (Uvalde, also the home of Dale Evans), Garner said about the Mexicans who worked his pecan plantations, “They are not troublesome people unless they become Americanized. The Sheriff can make them do anything.” When the Flint sit-down strike took place, Garner took this attitude toward labor and applied it to the GM workers. Essentially, he went bezerk. As Caro says, “To men accustomed to treating laborers like serfs, the very idea of unions was anathema (558).” Garner thought FDR told him he would come out against the sit-down strikes, but the consummate politician in the Oval Office only made Garner believe this. FDR did nothing of the sort. Garner and Roosevelt began arguing publicly. And when FDR introduced the court-packing bill, Garner essentially broke relations with the president. Rather than work with FDR, he left his post in the middle of the Congressional session (leaving the presiding seat empty) and went home to Uvalde.
By 1939, Garner was in open warfare with FDR over the third term. By this point, FDR and Garner hated each other and hated everything the other stood for. FDR hated Garner for being a reactionary, Garner hated FDR for being a big spending liberal. In truth, Garner was defeated by the Nazis as much as anything–the rise of the war in Europe made FDR seem indispensable and torpedoed his attempts to wrest the party leadership away from FDR.
But what would a Garner presidency had looked like? Horrible. A repeal of as much of the New Deal legislation as possible. A return to using the power of the state to crush labor. More than likely an ineptitude in preparing for war given Garner’s reticence in using the federal government’s power to build the economy.
John Nance Garner would have looked like a southern version of Grover Cleveland.
The nation is incredibly lucky that Roosevelt chose to run for a third term and held back the Garner challenge. I shudder to think what would have happened in the 1940s with John Nance Garner as our president.