John Nance Garner on the Vice Presidency—In Search of the Proverbial Bucket
By Patrick Cox, Ph.D.
Vice President John N. Garner and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, early 1930s. John Nance Garner Papers, CAH; di_01418.
When it comes to commentary about the office of vice president of the United States, no statement is more repeated than John Nance Garner's observation that the office "is not worth a bucket of warm spit." The crusty, sharp-tongued Texan, known during his lifetime as "Cactus Jack," built his reputation on biting commentary and one-liners. But regarding the "bucket" matter, did Garner really say what everyone thinks he said? If so, who first heard the story, and when did it first appear in print? And did Garner actually hold this view, or did he have a more analytical view of the office that stood second in line to the presidency?
The earliest reference to the bucket quote came from R. G. Tugwell, an FDR supporter and author of the 1968 book The Brains Trust. Tugwell wrote that he first heard the famous version soon after Garner accepted the 1932 vice presidential nomination. "I can still hear Roosevelt's guffaw when he was told the Speaker's opinion of the office. ‘It was,' the Texan said, ‘not worth a quart of warm spit.'"
John Nance Garner (left) and Will Rogers (seated next to Garner). John Nance Garner Papers, CAH; di_01844.
After two terms as FDR's vice president, Garner retired to Uvalde in 1941. Many journalists wrote of Garner's political influence, his extensive career, and his controversial personality. No story contained any reference to the bucket, but Garner occasionally commented about the vice president's job. In an interview with Collier's Magazine in March 1948, Garner referred to the office as "almost wholly unimportant." In 1957 Garner told author Florence Fenley that his election as vice president "was the worst thing that ever happened to me."
In his 1948 book, Garner of Texas, fellow Texan Bascom Timmons quoted Garner as stating the vice presidency was "a no man's land somewhere between the legislative and executive branch." Timmons held numerous interviews with Garner and followed him for years in Washington and in Texas, and he may have heard the bucket quote. But Timmons wanted his biography to present Garner in a positive light as an elder statesman and did not report the bucket story.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Harry Truman, John Nance Garner, Sam Rayburn, and Dolph Briscoe (l-r) at Garner's birthday, November 22, 1958. John Nance Garner Photograph Collection, CAH; di_02065.
The bucket resurfaces in connection with the 1960 presidential election. In Sam Johnson's Boy, Alfred Steinberg's biography of Lyndon Johnson, and in Theodore White's 1961 bestseller, The Making of the President 1960, both authors recounted an episode following JFK's victory as the Democratic presidential nominee. LBJ gathered with Speaker Sam Rayburn and his friends in his hotel suite to ponder the offer of the vice presidency. One phone call went to Garner in Uvalde, who reportedly told Johnson, "I'll tell you, Lyndon, the vice presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit."
When Garner passed away on November 7, 1967, tributes poured in from across the nation, but no mention of the bucket quote appeared in print until the Time magazine obituary of November 17, 1967, which stated, "Plain-spoken to the last, he always regretted having given up his Speaker's role for the vice presidency, which he said ‘wasn't worth a pitcher of warm spit.'"
After Garner's death in 1967, the quote began to appear more frequently in magazines and newspapers. The story continues to appear with some regularity every four years when presidential nominees select a running mate. Given Garner's reputation and his oft-quoted remarks about the vice presidency, there is little doubt that he used the bucket of warm spit reference, possibly as early as 1932. And, as biographer O. C. Fisher noted, he probably said warm piss instead.
As for reasons why the quote seldom appeared before the 1960s, the journalistic standards of the era would not allow for the introduction of some of the earthy language that Garner often employed. In any event, given the popularity and widespread acceptance of his anecdote, John Nance Garner and the bucket of warm spit will live on in the history of political lexicon.
The full-length article is available as a PDF. http://www.cah.utexas.edu/documents/news/garner.pdf
For more information, contact Patrick Cox, 512-495-4533, firstname.lastname@example.org.