February 23, 1933
Vice President-elect John Nance Garner focused on the news and tried to keep his expression level. It was all an act - a mixture of shock, fear and, to his own disgust, a small amount of relief, were all sloshing around in his brain.
"How long ago?" asked Garner, his voice carefully tailored to conceal anything but remorse over Roosevelt's death.
"Just a few moments ago, Mr. Vice President-elect," said the young messenger who had been dispatched to Garner's office in Texas. No longer Speaker of the House, Garner hadn't had much to do since November. Technically he was still a Congressman, but that didn't mean much, since he was due to become Roosevelt's second banana in two weeks. But now, everything was suddenly different." "Is, er, that is...do we...?" Garner struggled to find the words to express his question.
They'd discussed it last week, as Roosevelt lay dying in a Chicago hospital. It was fortunate, in a way, that Zangara's bullet had struck when it did. It was only at the beginning of this year that the 20th Amendment had passed, which made it clear what happened if a President-elect died before March 4. Had this happened any time before, chaos might have taken over. But the law was clear, and John Nance Garner saw himself standing on the abyss of history.
"It's as we discussed, sir," said Garner's aide, standing respectfully by the fireplace.
"Sir?" said the young messenger, his face still marked with desperate concern.
"What is it, son?" asked Garner, his Texan drawl having a reassuring edge to it.
"Does this mean you're going to be President now, sir?"
Garner said nothing for a moment, and then slowly nodded. "Yes, son, it does." He turned to his aide. "Has there been any discussion of a funeral?"
"Not yet, sir. But I expect it will take place somewhere in New York. President Hoover's going to want you to go, sir." Garner was silent for a long while. Then he stood up and shuffled some papers on his desk. "Well," he said, "y'all'd better hope nothing happens to me in the next two weeks. Otherwise that'll leave that Jackass Stimson in charge." The aide spoke up. "Actually, sir, it..." He shut his mouth after Garner waved him silent. He turned back to the messenger. "Thanks, son. You can go now."
When the messenger had left, Jack Garner stared at the papers on the desk and at the clock on the wall. Then he turned to his aide. "Well," he said. "Now this is a hell of a thing to happen..."
March 4, 1933
"I, John Nance Garner, do solemly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God."
There was applause from the assembled crowd as Chief Justice Hughes stepped back and shook hands with the new President. Behind him, President Hoover rose to his feet and likewise shook his hand. Garner smiled graciously as Hoover leaned in and whispered into the new President's ear. "Good luck," he said, "you're going to need it!"
Garner turned to the assembled crowd assembled in front of the Capitol on the unseasonably warm March morning. Behind them and amongst them he saw the cameras that would be capturing the event for newsreels around the country. He gave them a wave as well before taking out his speech and placing it on the podium. He cleared his throat. Somehow, he reflected, after everything, he still wasn't at all ready for this.
The speech was good, everybody agreed, afterwards. It was virtually a eulogy to the 'vision' of Franklin Roosevelt, which Garner's aides knew was nonsense - Garner had disagreed with Roosevelt about a great many things, especially the 'New Deal' idea. There were outlines of Garner's own conservative and measured plan to relieve Americans from the ugly economic circumstances the world was now facing. There was even some honest, home-spun Texan wisdom, as befitted the inaugural address of the first President from the South since before the Civil War.
But the question which had gone unspoken was in the minds of every person in the crowd, and every person on the podium, including Garner himself. It was this: Who, in God's name, are you? But for an accident of history and some dumb luck by a poor Italian socialist, Roosevelt would have been making this speech. Who was Jack Garner? Americans hadn't voted for Jack Garner - well, all right, they had, technically, but the choice had been Roosevelt or Hoover. Of course, Garner had wanted the job - he'd been Roosevelt's chief opponent last year, but nobody, least of all Jack Garner himself, seriously thought he'd ever do it. And he was faced with the strong tide of public opinion which said that Jack Garner was not the man everybody had wanted to be President.
There was only one thing for it, Jack Garner decided there and then. Be the best damn President you can be.
March 9, 1933
"God damn it, man!"
Garner's loud curse had been heard down the hallway, where West Wing staffers paused for a moment and then, realising that the President had just had another 'nutty' attack, quietly went back to work.
"What in the name of everything holy is wrong with them?" snarled Garner, who was standing behind his desk in the Oval Office. "They're supposed to be Democrats, for the love of God!"
"Yes, sir," said the aide Garner had brought with him from Texas, "but you're not just asking them to confirm Black as Secretary of State, Mr. President. There's no Vice President - that makes Black next in line if anything happens to you."
"So what, man?"
The aide shifted uneasily. "Sir, New Dealers love Black - he's their hero. But, well, there's a general feeling among Democrats in Congress that the New Deal should have died with Roosevelt, sir."
"That's crap, boy, and you know it!" snapped Garner, "there's dozens of New Dealers in Congress."
"Yes, sir, but they aren't the problem. It's...well, to be honest, sir, it's your own supporters who oppose Hugo Black."
"What? They think I'm gonna drop dead and leave Black in charge? The New Deal rides again?"
A pause. Then: "Yes, sir. And he's also a Southerner as well, sir, so you've lost Northern Senators there."
Garner sighed. "So, what? We can't get Black confirmed?"
"Not without the Republicans, sir. And they're not going to play ball. Not with Black."
The President stood silent for a moment. "I don't suppose, son," he said, deliberately, "they've given you another name? An alternative? Someone they would confirm?"
The aide frowned. "Yes, sir, as a matter of fact, they have. But, erm..."
"What? Out with it, man!"
"You're not going to like it, sir."
The aide said the name. Garner blinked. Then he sat down, heavily. "Please tell me this is your idea of a sick joke."
"No sir. Senator Lewis told me so personally. He said that if you put forward Kennedy's name as Secretary of State, the anti-New Dealers in Congress would be prepared to support Kennedy and your other nominees."
"So we get that Catholic asshole as Secretary of State, but the New Dealers get Wagner as Treasury Secretary? Plus the others?"
Garner sighed again. "Joe Kennedy? They couldn't pick someone else? It has to be Joe Kennedy?"
"Democrats in Congress think very highly of him, sir. And he was a huge fundraiser in November."
"He's a damn Catholic!"
"So is Al Smith, sir."
"Yeah. Al Smith lost. So, what, foreign policy's gonna be run by the Pope now?"
The aide wondered how to handle this rather bizarre assertion. He decided, probably wisely, to ignore it and concentrate on the reality. "Mr. President," he said, "we're five days in and we haven't got anything done. We need to get past this. We need to get your Cabinet confirmed so we can get on with governing. Get on with solving America's problems. If you don't want Joe Kennedy to be Secretary of State, I'll go tell Lewis right now and you can pick someone else. But, sir, I'm telling you straight, if you want to actually govern America, you need to take this one on the chin, bite the bullet and let the Senate confirm Kennedy and your other nominees."
Garner's mouth dropped open, suddenly taken aback at his young aide's honesty. But that was, he reflected, a Texan trait. Straight-talkers, to a man. He sighed for a third time, and sat down. "In case you hadn't noticed," he said, bitterly, "I'm not a young man. If anything happens to me, you realise we get Joe Kennedy as President of the god damn United States?"
"God help us all. The Founding Fathers had the right idea. They put the Senate pro-tem and the Speaker in the line of succession, right after VP. I don't suppose there's any chance of putting them back in?" There was a twinkle of hope in his voice.
"It's not the worst idea in the world, sir," admitted the aide. "But Speaker Rainey doesn't like us very much, and Senator Pittman..."
"...is Key Pittman, yeah, I know. So...we get Kennedy?"
Garner frowned. "Well, you never know," he said, hopefully. "Maybe someone will shoot him..."