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Condolences and endorsements: Truman Letter to Garner in 1948

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Truman and Garner on the campaign train, Fall 1948. Jimmie Dodd Photographic Collection
Harry Truman’s September 8 letter to John Nance Garner
Garner, Truman, Sam Rayburn, and Lyndon Johnson at Garner's 90th birthday, 1958

The Briscoe Center recently acquired a 1948 letter from President Harry Truman to former vice president John Nance Garner. It was written in September while Truman was campaigning for a second term in the White House. With the economy in trouble and the Democrats openly split between progressives, “dixiecrats,” and moderates, Truman was widely expected to lose to Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey.   

In the letter Truman offers his condolences to Garner, whose wife, Ettie, had recently passed away. (Garner and Ettie had moved back to Uvalde, Texas, in 1940 from Washington.) “She was a grand person,” writes Truman, “and I know exactly how much you leaned on her.” Truman also asks to enlist Garner in his upcoming electioneering efforts. In addition to seeking the wily Texan’s advice about his embattled presidency, Truman wanted Garner on the campaign train. “Maybe you could find it convenient to get on my Special Car and travel across Texas with me,” writes Truman, who planned stops in El Paso, Uvalde, San Antonio, Dallas, and Denison before heading on to Oklahoma City. “If you can’t do that I’ll certainly want to see you when the train stops in Uvalde.”

Garner and Truman had been close colleagues in the Senate during the 1930s. Like Garner’s protege Sam Rayburn, Truman became a member of Garner’s “doghouse,” a venue for bourbon drinking and poker playing among select Washington politicos. By 1940, Truman’s star was ascending while Garner’s was rather bitterly fading into the background. Eight years later, the new president’s own fortunes were looking bleak. His handling of the economy and efforts to pass civil rights legislation had made many in his party anxious, including Garner and Rayburn. An acerbic conservative, the retired Garner didn’t need the younger, pluckier president as much as the president needed him. Nevertheless, when Truman’s train pulled in to the station at Uvalde, Garner was there waiting with a car. He then endorsed the president for a second term in a speech on the lawn of his home (which now houses the Briscoe-Garner Museum.)

Buoyed and buttressed, Truman promised to return to Uvalde within 10 years. And despite the fact that the election was a cliffhanger in terms of the popular vote, Truman ended up winning the electoral college with ease. The unlikely victory, one of the greatest electoral upsets in American history, was due in a large part to Truman’s tireless campaigning. However, Garner’s endorsement was significant, giving Truman credence in Southern and conservative circles.

Upon the conclusion of his second term in 1952, Truman retired, but in 1958 he fulfilled his promise to Garner, showing up at his 90th birthday party. Rayburn was there too, as was future Texas governor Dolph Briscoe and future president Lyndon Johnson. During the celebration, Truman called Garner “the greatest presiding officer that the Senate ever had.” It was a fine compliment, but also a not-so-subtle salvo at the current vice president, Richard Nixon. To make sure everyone understood, Truman added “unlike that squirrel head we have now,” which brought a guffaw from Garner. For the sake of the reporters within earshot, Truman added, “I’m talking about Mr. Nixon if you’re wondering.” The dig was widely publicized.