Edition of "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations...

THE NEW

December 17, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THE NEW edition of "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" includes (at last) Vice President John Nance Garner's familiar assessment of the vice presidency.

Garner was vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1941. It is not too much to say that his agreeing to become the No. 2 nominee in 1932 ensured FDR's nomination. Garner was also a candidate for the presidential nomination at the Democratic convention that year. Deadlock loomed, when he agreed to release his delegates to FDR.

The ticket was elected and re-elected in 1936. Garner, known as Cactus Jack for his arid Texas homeland, was much more conservative than Roosevelt, and soon they fell out politically.

This was as much due to his personal situation as to philosophy. Garner had been speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives when he agreed to become vice president. As he often lamented later, "I gave up the second most important job in the government for one that that doesn't amount to a hill of beans."

No, that's not the familiar quotation "Bartlett's" uses.

Another time Garner said of his high office, "the vice presidency doesn't amount to a bottle of beer, a bottle of stale beer."

No, that's also not the familiar quotation "Bartlett's" has chosen.

The familiar quotation, the one that political trivialists know by heart, is, as reported in the Garner entry in "Franklin D. Roosevelt An Encyclopedic View," -- "the office is not worth a pitcher of warm spit."

I have seen this quotation in numerous histories, biographies and newspapers. And no, it is not what he in fact said. And to the credit of "Bartlett's" new editor, Justin Kaplan, that is not the entry in the new edition.

The "Bartlett's" entry is: "The vice presidency is not worth a pitcher of warm" -- and here "Bartlett's" uses a familiar vulgar word for urine.

That this is what Garner actually said, I am convinced by Evangeline Salazar, the curator of the John Nance Garner Museum and Library in Uvalde, Texas. She looked up the quotation in various sources. The coarse version appears in "Cactus Jack," a little-known biography written by a Garner friend, O. C. Fisher, for the little Texian Press.

Fisher showed Garner his manuscript before it was published. ++ Garner said that was the true quote. He said he had been deliberately misquoted through the years by "pantywaists [who] wouldn't print it the way I said it."

***

My own favorite Garner quote also dealt with his low assessment of the vice presidency. He was walking down the halls of the Senate Office Building or the Capitol one day. The circus was in Washington. A fellow came up to him and introduced himself. "I am the head clown in the circus," he said.

Very solemnly, Garner replied, "And I am the vice president of the United States. You'd better stick around here a while. You might pick up some new ideas."

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