Cactus Jack: Lone Star on Capitol Hill brings to life one of the most powerful but often forgotten figures in U.S. History—John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner (1868-1967). The poker–playing, bourbon-sipping Garner grew up in a tiny northeast Texas town and went on to become one of the most influential politicians in Washington’s corridors of power. During his two terms as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president, he completely reshaped the office, becoming an uncompromising architect of major American policy and a notorious backroom dealmaker—without whom FDR would not have been able to enact his controversial New Deal policies.
But then Cactus Jack went to war with his own boss and embarked on a bruising split with FDR over the president’s controversial attempts to overhaul the U.S. Supreme Court. In one final, breathtaking reversal, Garner tried to defeat FDR and seize the Oval Office himself. When FDR was re-elected for a third term, Garner packed his bags for Texas and swore that he would never cross the Potomac again.
Garner was born in the horse-and-buggy era—and lived until the Space Age. He was a wily Congressman and a commanding Speaker of the House—and a political godfather to Lyndon Baines Johnson, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. He was mercurial and contradictory: He was anti-Wall Street but profoundly anti-union. He boosted the New Deal before he angrily turned against it. He touted massive government-funded projects but was deeply wary of social welfare. On his 95th birthday there would be one more poignant reminder of Garner’s legacy on Capitol Hill. On Nov. 22, 1963, the last phone call President John Kennedy made before getting into the fated motorcade was to wish the Democratic Party elder a happy birthday.
By shining a light on the brazen political strategies of Garner, Cactus Jack: Lone Star on Capitol Hill opens new chapters in U.S. history and provides vital clues to the way our nation does business today. “The history of the modern vice presidency really begins with John Nance Garner,” says historian and executive producer Don Carleton, “but he’s been largely ignored, because he doesn’t fit within the clichéd assumptions held by many about the New Deal.” “You could argue that much of what FDR accomplished would never have occurred without Garner,” says presidential biographer Bill Minutaglio, who helped research Cactus Jack.
In the film, notable FDR scholar Bill Brands concludes, “Roosevelt couldn’t have done it by himself, Garner couldn’t have done it by himself, but the two of them working together for eight years managed to put together this coalition between the liberal Northeasterners and the Southern conservatives that did last and that really changed the face of America.”
Produced by the University of Texas at Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and made possible by funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Center’s Briscoe Endowment, the film documents Garner’s life from his upbringing in small-town Texas to his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives and focuses on his two terms as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Vice President. The film was directed and shot by Nancy Schiesari (Tattooed Under Fire, Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer); edited by Anne Lewis, Rebecca Adams, and Hans-Martin Liebing; written by Bill Minutaglio; executive produced by Don Carleton (When I Rise); co-produced by Echo Uribe; and produced by Nancy Schiesari and Hans-Martin Liebing.