It is a name that is part of Texas lore, a name known far and wide and as big as Texas itself: Cactus Jack.
Before it was heard in concert halls and wrestling rings, the name echoed around Capitol Hill as moniker of John Nance Garner. He was a whiskey-guzzling, cowboy-hat-wearing politician from Texas who spent more than 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. After, he went on to become the 32nd Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It has been awhile since Cactus Jack was a household name, a name he earned for suggesting that the prickly pear cactus would make a better state flower than the bluebonnet – although he lost that battle.
A new documentary plans to set the record straight about who the “real” Cactus Jack might be. It’s airing on PBS stations across the country just in time for President’s Day and is directed by Nancy Schiesari, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Don Carleton, executive director of UT’s Briscoe Center, produced the film.
Schiesari says she didn’t know anything about Cactus Jack before starting on the documentary about him until folks from the Briscoe Center approached her. His story starts in small-town Texas in Red River County.
“We told the story chronologically, onto his movement to Washington,” she says. “We have incredible storytellers in the film, like Don, who give that whole history life.”
Carleton says they’ve been looking how to “rescue” Cactus Jack from obscurity. “He’s bascially been lost to history,” he says, “and he’s just way too important a historical character to have been lost like that.”
Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.