John Nance Garner was a crusty Texan who served two terms (1933-1941) as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president. And he was blunt, declaring that the vice presidency “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Indeed, biographer O.C. Fisher maintained that this formulation was a euphemism. Garner actually said that the vice presidency “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm p-ss.”
Garner had his reasons for being unimpressed. Prior to agreeing to run on Roosevelt’s ticket, his 30-year career in the House of Representatives had taken him to the top of the congressional ladder. As Speaker, he was one of the most powerful men in Washington.
But he found the office of vice president without power and “almost wholly unimportant.” Years later, he put it this way: “When I was elected vice president of the United States, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Garner’s immediate predecessor, Charles Curtis, also found the job to be less than he’d have liked.
After many years as a consummate dealmaker in the House and Senate, Curtis was side-lined during his four years (1929-1933) as Herbert Hoover’s vice president. The two men didn’t personally gel: the intellectual Hoover had little use for the talents that Curtis brought to the table, and thus the hitherto majority leader was confined to presiding over the Senate and casting the odd tie-breaking vote.
But if he was a relative non-entity as vice president, Curtis had one of the most colourful backgrounds of anyone who has ever occupied the office. To this day, he remains the only vice president with a recognised Native American heritage. As he used to tell audiences, he was a “one-eighth Kaw Indian and a one-hundred percent Republican.”
The Native American link came through the maternal line and was sufficiently strong that the young Curtis actually spoke the language and spent part of his childhood on the reservation, where he became a very proficient rider. It was a skill that he put to use as a competitive jockey when he moved to live with his paternal grandparents. But after his grandmother eventually put her foot down, the teenage boy finished high school before subsequently moving on to the law and politics.
Then there was Charles Gates Dawes, the vice president before Curtis. If multiple talents are the measure of a man, you’d have to go a long way to find his equal.
In addition to an impressive pedigree – his great-great grandfather rode with Paul Revere – Dawes had a personal resume that few people could match.
Initially a lawyer and banker, Dawes wrote his first book in 1894 on the topic of The Banking System of the United States and Its Relation to the Money and Business of the Country. He then served as Comptroller of the Currency from 1898 to 1901, during which stint his efforts were directed towards reforming the banking practices that had contributed to the panic of 1893.
Although he was almost 52 years-old when America joined the First World War in 1917, Dawes declined the offer of a senior civilian position in favour of serving in the military. So, commissioned as a major in the 17th Railway Engineers, he was shipped to France where he quickly rose to the rank of brigadier general.
Crisis called again when Germany financially collapsed in 1923. This time, Dawes was tapped to head a rescue commission and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
And let’s not forget his excursion into songwriting. He was a talented amateur pianist and composed the popular Melody in A Major. First published in 1912, it was subsequently transformed into the famous pop song It’s All in the Game after Carl Sigman added lyrics in 1951.
However, being a man of multiple talents wasn’t much help to Dawes during his four years (1925-1929) as Calvin Coolidge’s vice president. Strongly opinionated and tactless, he could irritate and alienate rather than influence. And neither Coolidge nor the Senate much appreciated his style.
But if the vice presidency can be a powerless, frustrating, even humiliating experience, it must also have its attractions. After all, there’s never a shortage of takers.
Still, you’ve got to hand it to John Nance Garner. He certainly had a way with words.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.