A Look Back at a Colorful Texas Politician
Donald Trump might have enjoyed his friendship and Barack Obama might have invited him to the White House. After all, he guzzled whiskey, chain-smoked cigars, played cards until late at night, wore a cowboy hat and served as the Vice President of the United States from 1933 to 1941.
Fellow Texans and longtime Democrats might still remember the name and the legend of John Nance Garner, but American voters have largely forgotten him and the pivotal role he played in Washington D.C. during the Great Depression. Now, a sixty-minute documentary about him, Cactus Jack: Lone Star on Capitol Hill, airs on PBS.
Archival footage and snappy interviews with Lone Star State historians recreate Garner's colorful life, from his birth in Detroit, Texas in 1868 until his death in Uvalde, Texas in 1967, just fifteen days shy of his 99th birthday.
Cactus Jack would be a welcome documentary in any year, but especially in 2016, when American citizens go to the polls to choose a new president. Directed by Nancy Schiesari, written by Bill Minutaglio and produced by Don Carleton at the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, Texas, Cactus Jack shows that politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows, that power can corrupt and that before the coming of LBJ, George Bush and Senator Ted Cruz, Texas politicians shaped the political contours of the nation.
The film traces Garner's intimate relationship with Mariette Rheiner, the daughter of a rancher, whom he married in Sabinal, Texas in 1895 and who accompanied him to Washington, D.C. where she worked as his private secretary and de facto chief-of-staff, while he served in the House of Representatives from 1902 to 1933. No politician ever had a more loyal or more loving assistant.
These days, Capitol Hill doesn't operate in the same way it did then, and Vice President's don't say the kinds of things in public that Garner said. The Vice Presidency, he complained, was "not worth a bucket of warm piss."
Cactus Jack offers a sympathetic portrait of an old-fashioned, back room politician, but it doesn't idealize him or gloss over his deep-seated conflicts about policy and power with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At its best, the documentary takes a long, close look at the social divisions in America during the crisis of the Depression, when extreme problems called for extreme solutions.
By the end of the film, one wonders where Garner would stand today and whether he'd be a Democrat or a Republican. Still, you don't have to be a member of a major political party or even a Texan to enjoy this fast-moving documentary that looks at the recent past and prompts viewers to wonder how much or how little progress we've made as a nation in the past seventy-five years.
Surely, Vice Presidents don't drink as much whiskey or smoke as many cigars these days as Garner did in his heyday. They probably don't employ their wives, either, at least not as visibly.
Jonah Raskin, roams the wide-open spaces of Texas and writes about politics and culture for magazines and websites.