The Truth about John Connally
Does this man belong on a white horse?
November 1979By Paul Burka1 Comment
Imagine that you are John Connally, campaigning for president in a run-down Italian neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. You are walking from grocery store to cafe to pizzeria with the ambitious young mayor, a caricature of his type, when suddenly he flips a coin to a proprietor, grabs a peach, and stuffs it gluttonously into his mouth, spurting juice everywhere. Everyone is looking at you; you have to buy something. How can you remain fastidious, correct John Connally?
There is only one answer, and Connally found it—grapes. He bought a small bunch and picked them off one at a time, image intact.
Do such tiny instances really make a president? Three years of Jimmy Carter, alas, have taught us the importance of the president having control of things, beginning with self. Insecurity is fatal in the presidency: it keeps a Lyndon Johnson in Viet Nam; it draws a Richard Nixon to Watergate; it renders a Jimmy Carter indecisive, politically paralyzed; and when it is perceived by the public, the ability to lead is lost. Picture Jimmy Carter in the same grocery store, wanting most of all to please and fit in, and so buying a peach and ending up with juice dribbling down his chin.
Personality is the one essential issue in presidential politics. We are too often mesmerized by matters of policy, looking for the smallest difference that will distinguish candidates, when the big differences—those of personality—are out there for all to see, if only we will look. Richard Nixon rose to prominence in the forties on the issue of being tough on communism. His greatest accomplishment as president was the restoration of relations with communist China. But his personality didn’t change, and eventually it brought him down. Most political questions ultimately reduce to matters of public confidence—the value of the dollar, the health of the stock market, the willingness to go to war or to accept the risks of nuclear power—and public confidence is just a reflection of how people perceive their leader. In politics, image has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. If Jimmy Carter doesn’t return a phone call from a senator, it’s interpreted as a sign he doesn’t know how to get along in Washington. If Lyndon Johnson didn’t return one, it was interpreted as his way of sending the senator a message.
This, then, is a story about John Connally’s personality, not his politics. Appropriately, more than most politicians, Connally himself has become the principal issue in his campaign. To be sure, there is still much debate over the validity of his economic theories, which are aimed mainly at befriending the top economic layer—sort of a warmed-over Trickle-Down theory with the government holding the spout—but even when his enemies talk about Connally’s stand on issues, his personality dominates: his economic ideas, for example, are often coupled with their conviction that he is arrogant and insensitive.
Of all the candidates, only Connally and Teddy Kennedy inspire such passion. People react to them on a gut level. No one has any trouble explaining a preference for Connally. He appeals to people looking for leadership (they want someone who looks and acts presidential); style (they want a candidate who can stir their emotions from the stump); skill (they want a president they can trust to bargain with the Russians and the Japanese); values (they want a return to basic American virtues like hard work); and toughness (they want someone who’ll stand up to the interest groups and build a national constituency, the way Jimmy Carter was supposed to do). But—and here is why John Connally’s personality has become the dominant issue—while one pole of the magnet attracts, the other repels. The same factors that work for him work against him; every asset is simultaneously a liability. To his enemies, his record of leadership is characterized by words, not deeds. His stem-winding style is anathema to many staid Republicans. His negotiating skill is seen as a polite term for wheeling and dealing without any real principle. As for his values, he has left an unsavory trail leading back not years but decades. His toughness runs to excess and could divide the country worse than Lyndon Johnson ever did.
With these contradictions comes ambiguity. Which is he, good or evil? The question is almost Shakespearean, and indeed Connally is something of an epic figure, larger than life, carrying both great potential and the seed of his own failure. Is he the Caesar that Brutus saw, self-seeking and overly ambitious? Or is he an unselfish patriot, Antony’s Caesar? The Romans ended a republic over just such a question. Let us hope it can be resolved more easily this time.
John Connally works on the principle that he’d rather be feared than loved. And he’s gotten his wish.
Austin, 1967. With the Legislature in session, several favored state senators have dropped by the governor’s office for a late-afternoon drink and post mortem. Midway through the visit John Connally begins telling a story. Lyndon Johnson had called him the other night from the White House, Connally said. It was after midnight, and Johnson was crying. “John, why do they hate me so?” the President had wanted to know. It is apparent to the senators that Connally is telling the story not out of compassion for his old friend but out of scorn. How, he asks them, could Lyndon be so weak?
That is one question that has never been asked about John Connally. If anything, he is too strong, too tough. When the senators in his office that day left the room, it was Connally, not Johnson, who had slipped in their estimation: he had told a story he ought not to have told; he placed toughness above loyalty. Today, as Connally seeks the job Johnson once held, his extreme toughness—like the other facets of his personality—remains both a plus and a minus. It provides a welcome contrast to Jimmy Carter, but it also lends credence to his image as arrogant and vengeful and without human charity.
Whatever its political effect, however, his toughness is indisputably his greatest personal resource. Without it there’s no telling where he’d be: dead, perhaps—it is said he was within five minutes of bleeding to death from the wound he suffered in the Kennedy assassination; or in an Austin law office, an aging and dispirited lobbyist reminiscing with other conservative Democrats about the good old days; or in some federal prison with the rest of the Nixon team. John Connally is the greatest political survivor of our time, maybe in all of American political history. He has survived a bullet, a party switch, a close association with a disgraced president, a criminal trial, plus any number of potential lesser catastrophes—among them a posthumous attack on Martin Luther King, Jr., a suggestion that Richard Nixon should burn the Watergate tapes, and a borderline accusation that two United States senators were guilty of treason. He is the most investigated man in America not of Sicilian ancestry. Unlike Teddy Kennedy, who has weathered a few crises himself, Connally has had to fight his way back to the top without a political base or an inherited cadre of devoted followers. It has been an act of will. There is no precedent in politics for Connally’s dogged pursuit of the presidency; the closest parallel would be Muhammad Ali, his jaw shattered by Ken Norton and his skills eroded by age, arising daily at five in the morning and willing his paunchy body over mile after mile of Pennsylvania mountain road to train for a comeback no one else believed possible—no one.
The little things, Connally’s friends say, are the most indicative of his inner strength. They tell of Connally waiting for the jury to decide his fate, passing the hours by calmly giving legal advice to a Vinson & Elkins client. They tell about the time, not too long after his recovery from the bullet wound, when two hunters got lost and shots rang out at his Lake McQueeney retreat: everyone, including two state troopers, dived for the safety of the trees—except Connally. And they tell of the numerous times when Connally did what no one else could do—stand up to Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson was infamous for his abusive, domineering treatment of his staff, but from the start he didn’t dominate Connally. Their tests of wills, which were to occur again and again while Johnson was in the White House and Connally was in the governor’s mansion, began while Connally was still Johnson’s male secretary in 1939; occasionally they went weeks without speaking and orders had to be relayed through other aides. The biggest blowup came during the 1948 senatorial race, when Johnson had to cancel a speech in Wichita Falls because he was sick—so sick he went to the Mayo Clinic instead. Worried that his health would become an issue, Johnson instructed Connally, then his campaign manager, to tell the press he was unavoidably detained in Washington. You can’t get away with it, Connally warned. He told Johnson he was going to tell the truth. Johnson’s response was that he’d never speak to Connally again. Connally did what he said he’d do, and for a while Johnson did what he said he’d do, and for two crucial weeks of a race so close that it would be decided by 87 votes, candidate and campaign manager did not communicate.
Connally became Johnson’s most trusted political operative. When the Lower Colorado River Authority, which supplied electric power for most of LBJ’s district, found its expansion threatened by private utilities, Lyndon saw that Connally was appointed to the LCRA board back in Austin. Later, Connally returned to Washington in 1949 as the top aide to newly elected Senator Johnson. They were a superb team—Johnson the compromiser, Connally the tough guy. When dirty work had to be done, Connally drew the assignment, as when he suggested at the 1960 Democratic National Convention that Jack Kennedy had a fatal disease and shouldn’t be nominated. Working for Johnson was a great education, but it had one flaw: Connally’s role as hatchet man was one-dimensional. He didn’t have to face the voters; he knew none of the restraints of holding political office and wanting to keep it. Later, when Connally had an office of his own, his zeal for putting his enemies to the sword remained that of a back-room operator. “It’s not enough for Connally to beat you,” says Congressman Charlie Wilson of Lufkin, a Connally ally while he was in the Legislature. “He’s got to rub your nose in the dirt.”
That’s the way everyone played the game when Connally was learning the rules. He is the product of an era when Texas politics was a give-no-quarter struggle among states’ rights conservatives, Johnson New Deal moderates, and earnest liberals, and woe to the losers. If the host delegation at a state convention ended up on the losing side, they would retaliate by removing the rented furniture and leaving the winners chairless for the duration. Compromise was unthinkable; this was war.
At a different time, with a different personality, Connally as governor might have been able to unite the state Democratic party. He always ran well among ethnic minorities, and he was the first Texas governor to appoint a significant number of blacks and Mexican Americans to state boards. His program should have appealed more to liberals than the combined recommendations of his three predecessors—or his three successors, for that matter. But the old enmities ran too deep. The liberals didn’t trust him from the start; he was part of the Johnson crowd that had wrested—stolen, they said—control of the 1956 state convention. The split showed up early: Connally abandoned the sections of his program that the liberals were most interested in—industrial safety and loan shark reform—knowing that they could not pass the Legislature; the liberals, meanwhile, viewed Connally’s cherished higher education proposals with skepticism because they were aimed at attracting industry, not scholars.
Gradually the liberals came to see a sinister motive behind every Connally proposal. When the new Parks and Wildlife Department allowed shell dredgers to operate dangerously close to live oyster reefs, his critics not only blamed Connally but even suggested it was the entire purpose behind the creation of the new department. When Connally asked a railroad commissioner who had been tainted by scandal to resign, the liberals said that he was playing along with the major oil companies, because the commissioner favored independents. When he recommended more emphasis on community mental health care, which is both cheaper and more effective than institutional care, the liberals assailed him for trying to chop the mental health budget. Even Connally’s blueprint for higher education was assigned a malignant purpose: to give a state coordinating board the power to cancel courses in politically sensitive areas like Keynesian economics. Every Connally proposal—even those liberals had been advocating for years, like four-year terms for governors—got a similar reception. Eventually Connally ran out of patience. “Your friends are all crazy,” he told Charlie Wilson, then regarded as somewhat left of center.
The moment the breach became unbridgeable can be identified with certainty: it happened when Houston liberal Don Yarborough filed against Connally in the 1964 primary and called him “the worst governor Texas has ever had.” Connally was still weak from his assassination ordeal two and a half months earlier. He didn’t want to campaign and didn’t feel he should have to—in particular, he felt he’d given liberals no reason to oppose him and told them so. You can just imagine the thought going through Connally’s mind: By God, I won’t make that mistake again—next time they’ll have a reason. As it became clearer that Don Yarborough would indeed make the race, Connally stepped up his efforts to find an opponent for U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough (no relation to Don), the liberals’ bellwether. But Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection too, and he couldn’t afford to have his Texas base endangered by political fratricide. He put out the word: Yarborough was untouchable. Connally had to pull back his claws, and his displeasure at being denied the kill bordered on despair. He told a Capitol reporter he’d never seek office again. “This business gets old,” Connally complained. “It’s not your enemies who hurt you the most. Sometimes it’s your friends.”
Connally’s attitudes were hardening; he was the old Johnson hatchet man again, though acting now in his own behalf. He told the liberals that Don Yarborough’s entry had ended any chance of party harmony and set out to fulfill his own prophecy. He won the primary by almost three to one and sailed into the June state convention determined to teach the liberals a lesson. The vehicle turned out to be conservative challenges to liberal delegations from San Antonio and Dallas. The anti-Connally folks appeared to have the much better legal claim (something that counts about as much at state conventions as Boy Scout merit badges); nevertheless, they offered to split Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio with the Connally forces. They transmitted their compromise to Connally through a respected intermediary with ties to both sides. The emissary pleaded with Connally to make some conciliatory gesture—after all, he pointed out, this was a presidential year, LBJ was running, Texas was a critical state, and party unity was essential. Would Connally want the defeat of his mentor on his conscience? “To hell with ‘em,” Connally snapped. “I’ve got the votes.” After the convention he characteristically rubbed the liberals’ nose in the dirt, by appointing Marvin Watson head of the Texas Democratic party; Watson was the longtime corporate assistant to the man who was chairman of Democrats for George Bush—Ralph Yarborough’s Republican opponent.
The spring of 1964 proved to be a pivotal time for John Connally. Thereafter his personal toughness and his political toughness too often were inseparable. He hounded those he deemed to be his enemies with unrelenting vigor. He called reporters into his office for off-the-record revelations about a labor leader’s sexual adventures. As a defender of Johnson’s Viet Nam policies he lit into Senate critics with a force that would later be typical of Spiro Agnew, using words like appeasement and surrender that respectable politicians shunned. He even pursued Martin Luther King beyond the grave with the uncharitable statement, on learning of King’s murder, that he “contributed much to the chaos, and the strife, and the confusion, and the uncertainty in this country, but he deserved not the fate of assassination.” Connally’s toughness dulled his historical judgment (and his political judgment); by acknowledging that King was, nonetheless, a great man, Connally could have said all the negatives and had gotten away with it. But that isn’t John Connally’s style.
His close friends say that Connally’s experience in the Milk Fund case has tempered his lust for combat. He has learned what it is, they say, to fight against the limitless resources of the government; it teaches you humility and compassion and a sense of what it’s like to be oppressed. If he needed further instruction in compassion, he could turn to an uplifting letter he received during his ordeal from his old nemesis Ed Clark, the one-time kingpin of the Austin lobby, whose gesture transcended the fact that Connally, as governor, broke Clark’s grip on the Legislature.
Perhaps Connally is different. But he doesn’t sound much different when he ridicules opponents of nuclear power by saying he takes his scientific advice from Dr. Edward Teller, not Jane Fonda. Teller, known as the father of the H-bomb, is just as uncritically pro-nuke as Fonda is unreasonably anti. The Connally of that statement is familiar: it is the Connally of 1968, lashing out at Martin Luther King, unable to see any redeeming qualities in those he opposes.
An unlikely obstacle stands in John Connally’s way to the Republican nomination. He is a Democrat.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1979. John Connally is in the dark. Literally. The 75 or so guests invited to the home of a former Fort Worth oilman have tarried too long around the swimming pool and the bar and the plates of tenderloin of beef, and by the time they make their way to the chairs on the front lawn, the sun has gone down. The lighting illuminates the house, not the speaker, silhouetting Connally against the white brick. This accidental staging is strangely effective at that, as it converts Connally into an orchestra conductor, so that when he comes to the subject of Russian troops in Cuba and points to the south, he seems to be cuing the trumpets to their entrance.
But Connally only knows he’s in the dark, and he isn’t pleased. He cuts his remarks short and calls for questions from the audience. The first one comes from a porcine man with a glass in his hand, a double for Ned Beatty in Deliverance. “John,” he begins (he has never met Connally before in his life), “there are a hundred and eighty million white people in this country. When are you going to make the nigras stop stepping on us?” Everyone has heard the question only too well, but Connally repeats it, giving himself time to formulate his answer. It is perfect—“Yes, I believe in equal right for everyone in this country”—and it says two things about Connally’s political style. One, he thinks very well on his feet. Two, he has a knack for telling people things they don’t want to hear and making them like it. In fact, his chances of winning the Republican nomination may depend on just how good this knack is.
Earlier that day he had been confronted with a less dramatic, though equally emotional, question about giving welfare to people with Cadillacs and foreign aid to countries that stab us in the back. Connally began by saying that we need to help people. He did not pause for a breath before adding that we’ve got to improve the delivery system: “We can’t go on handing out money to welfare cheaters and people who don’t want to work, and we shouldn’t give foreign aid to our enemies. You can’t buy friends.” Connally has such an instinct for emphasis and theatrics that by the time he’d pounded the podium into submission on welfare cheaters, his audience had entirely missed the point: he is for welfare. Once he was asked about national health insurance; his response was to attack the Carter and Kennedy proposals and add, as if an afterthought, “Of course, we do need to take care of the twelve per cent of the people who don’t have serious medical illness coverage.” In other words, he’s for a form of national health insurance too.
It is frequently said that Connally’s major problem among Republicans is that he’s viewed as a turncoat. But in reality he has a far greater problem: he hasn’t turned at all. Although he perceives America’s problems like a Republican, he perceives the solutions like a Democrat. He still believes in using the government to solve problems something he has in common with most Democrats and few Republicans. The rationale for his activism is different from most Democrats’: they want a national oil company to break the monopoly of the major energy companies; he wants a national oil company to buy half the assets of Aramco so the Arabs would have to deal with Uncle Sam when they raise prices. But in the end, you wind up with the same thing.
If there is any real difference in the parties these days, it is that Republicans tend to be more ideological, Democrats more pragmatic; surely no one in the country has any doubts about which of those two poles attracts John Connally. As recently as 1976, the very word pragmatist was in disrepute in certain Republican circles. The Reagan faithful disdainfully hung the label on Ford supporters, as though it were synonymous with leper. Connally strategists insist that the GOP right wing now looks to government for help, but whether he can capture its loyalty remains to be seen. He is cool to the idea of a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion—it saps the national vitality for a cause he regards as low priority—and the right so far has been cool to him in return.
For all that Connally has gone around the country saying things like “The Republican party is the only hope for the survival of this country,” attending party fundraisers, and campaigning for innumerable state legislative candidates, he still hasn’t been fully accepted by Republicans. At his trial the only politicians to visit him in the courtroom were Democrats. His speeches don’t seem to enthrall Republicans the way they once captured Democratic audiences. His address at the 1976 Republican convention was a clunker; the delegates talked throughout it, voting with their mouths. It is no coincidence that his best appearances as a campaigner are before politically mixed audiences. His fervent style, where his verbal pace can rival an auctioneer’s, is too often out of place at purely Republican functions. I heard him speak under a twelve-foot chandelier at a Newport, Rhode Island, GOP fundraiser and he went longer without applause than I would have though possible or polite. This was supposedly his kind of audience, too—the very rich—but after fifteen minutes or so I heard a woman wearing a huge diamond-and-sapphire pendant whisper to her companion, “He isn’t pushing the right buttons.” Afterward I asked her what she meant, and she said, “He was using fear motivation. That isn’t the way to talk to these people.” I thought back to Connally’s talk, which had dwelled on national pride and contained phrases like “We’re the most vulnerable nation on earth” and “This country is a hostage.” It sounded a lot like the Jack Kennedy of 1960, who used fear motivation to get elected. As a Democrat.
Before the right audiences, however, Connally can be brilliant. No one can deliver a simple line better. Much has been written about how this style developed from his experience as an actor in the UT Curtain Club, but Connally’s mastery of the language goes far beyond student acting. He knows its strengths and weaknesses like a master linguist. He was at his best at a luncheon in West Palm Beach: witty, intelligent, demagogic on occasion, in charge, yet at one with his listeners. But an hour later, at a Holiday Inn in South Palm Beach, Connally was dismal and flat. The difference? The first audience was the Forum Club, a collection of, in the words of the local mayor’s aide, “everyone who is anyone in Palm Beach County.” At the Holiday Inn the group was exclusively Republican and much older—perhaps not retired, but certainly tired. The Forum Club audience was activist and part Democratic; they were Connally’s kind of folks. He has nothing in common with the people at the Holiday Inn except a party label.
Connally’s natural constituency consists of movers and shakers—that’s why the Republicans he gets along with best are the boardroom types and not the idle rich of Newport—and people who are politically sophisticated. That frequently means Democrats, who are in the majority party and therefore have more experience exercising power. Once at a staff meeting several advisors were trying to get him to soft-pedal his stance on government activism in order to appeal more to the Republican right; Connally would have none of it: “That’s the kind of thinking that’s kept the Republicans a minority party for thirty years.”
The Republicans he cannot reach must seem familiar to Connally. In a different decade, in a different part of the country, in a different political party, they are the same people he could not reach as governor: Texas liberals in another guise, people who would rather control their party than the government, who would rather lose than compromise. It is one of the finer ironies of American politics: John Connally switched parties in 1973 because the Democrats had been taken over by people whose ideology he could not accept, only to find that to gain the Republican nomination in 1980 he must win the support of people whose ideology he cannot accept.
All politicians want to be known as statesmen. All wheeler-dealers want to be known as negotiators. Can John Connally make the leap?
Austin, 1961. The 35 or so automobile dealers gathered in a meeting room for breakfast at the Driskill Hotel were distinctly unimpressed. They had hoped for a better performance from the tall fellow in the blue seersucker suit and rubber-soled shoes—that was long before Lyndon Johnson would observe that “John isn’t comfortable unless he’s in three-hundred-dollar suits and the company of men wearing them”—for, like the rest of the business lobby, the auto dealers were looking for a candidate to support in the 1962 governor’s race. The incumbent, Price Daniel, Sr., had alienated the lobby in the previous campaign by assailing them as “the Black Knights of Congress [Avenue].” Of all Daniel’s challengers, only Connally had the credentials (Secretary of the Navy) and the conservative pedigree (his long association with Forth Worth oil baron Sid Richardson), but his talk to the auto dealers had been a flop. If he had any knowledge of state government, he kept it to himself. The dealers’ lobbyist, an ex-legislator named Bob Bullock who would go on to a political career of his own, though to himself with dismay, This fella ain’t too bright.
Five weeks later Connally came back to address the auto dealers again, and things took a different turn. Very different. He discussed the issues facing Texas like no one in the room had ever heard them discussed before—not just facts and figures and theories, though he had plenty of each, but where the real power lay and where the bodies were buried. Recalls Bullock, “I never saw anyone who knew Texas politics so well.” And that was the last recorded instance of someone taking John Connally for a lightweight.
Seldom has intelligence been an asset in Texas politics—not too long ago a legislator explained to me why an apparently able colleague had so little influence: “He reads books. Real books”—but Connally’s luck was in. This was 1962, and Jack Kennedy was in the White House, surrounded by Harvard professors and other certified intellectuals who, it was said, brought glamour and respectability to politics. Connally seemed to fit right in, an ambassador from Camelot, though in truth he already loathed the Kennedys for looking down on Lyndon Johnson. He started the governor’s race with a mere 4 per cent in the polls, but on election day he led by more than 100,000 votes. Daniel didn’t make the runoff.
Connally had transformed himself from novice to expert by absorbing what mounted to a month-long cram course on Texas politics, tutored by Frank Miskell, a young lawyer recruited from the legislative research and drafting office. Miskell would become the first, but far from the last, Connally associate to be dazzled by his leader’s osmosis of detail. Connally’s initial gubernatorial staff “just worshipped him,” says a legislative veteran of that era. “It happened within weeks.”
This instant adulation is something of a Connally trademark. It would emerge again at the Treasury Department eight years later, despite the fact that Connally knew little about high-level economics when he took the job. The classic bureaucratic strategy in such a situation is to take along a large and loyal staff to insulate yourself against infighting during your learning period. Connally took one lawyer and one personal secretary. He won over the rest of the agency—including Paul Volcker, now chairman of the Federal Reserve Board—with displays like the one he put on for a speechwriter he asked to prepare some remarks about international trade. Connally suggested that the writer look up a speech given six moths earlier by the chairman of Texas Instruments (Connally was a director of the company). As Connally began explaining what the speech had covered, the recollection excited him, and numbers started spilling out of his head: things like GNP, output, work force, percentage changes, there must have been a dozen of them. When the writer found the speech, he checked the actual numbers against his notes of what Connally had said. Connally had missed one by a tenth of a percentage point; on the others, he was on the money.
Acceptance even came quickly for Connally after he joined Houston’s heavyweight Vinson & Elkins law firm following his third term as governor in 1969. This was no mean feat, for Connally’s entry as a senior partner—very unusual for an outsider—touched off resentment inside the firm and speculation among its rivals. It was widely assumed that his association with V-E was calculated mainly to help the firm attract big money clients in search of political influence. The firm soon assigned him to a team of lawyers arguing a banking case before the court of civil appeals, no doubt because he had appointed some of the judges who would be hearing the case. But Connally is not the sort to be content with a token appearance. When the V-E team returned, a colleague’s assessment swept through the firm: “This guy could have made a hell of a living arguing cases in the court of civil appeals all his life.”
And yet . . .and yet. With John Connally there is always a qualifier, always a negative to cancel any positive. Even his mind works against him. It needs constant nourishment; he is quick to be bored and slow to conceal it. His governorship was only weeks old before word began to circulate that he found much of the job boring. He was frustrated by the constitutional weakness of the office. He didn’t want to run for a third term in 1966, but Lyndon and others begged him to; he delayed his decision so long that Attorney General Waggoner Carr went to the State Democratic Executive Committee meeting with two press releases, one for governor, one for U.S. senator, depending on what Connally would say.
He always hated the ceremonial aspects of the job, for they offered no challenge. Once a group of Tigua Indians from El Paso came to make a presentation; they streaked his face with war paint and Connally made no effort to hide his disgust. He began rubbing the paint off before the ceremony was over. Such incidents often seemed to cross the line from boredom to arrogance and gave substance to the notion that Connally only cares about the rich. That is not quite accurate. A state senator who was close to Connally as governor says, “He doesn’t care much for the common man, but what people don’t understand is that he doesn’t care much for most big shots either. Everybody’s got to prove himself.” Connally admits that he likes to be around bright and successful people “because I learn a lot,” as he told a Florida luncheon. But that night he went to a fundraiser attended mostly by the playboy rich, and he was bored: the veins on his neck were standing out—the barometer of Connally’s impatience.
Even Connally’s greatest talent is a political liability. He is best at negotiating—a skill synonymous these days with wheeling and dealing. Poor Connally: his natural talent, a skill he is justifiably proud of, is in political disfavor.
And he is good at it. When he was Secretary of the Treasury, most European finance ministers were furious with Connally—a sure sign he was a tough bargainer. When the U.S. imposed a surcharge on imports, the Europeans wanted it held to 5 per cent. Connally made it 10. He scoffed at State Department pleas to go easy on our friends; his job, he said, was to protect the interests of the United States.
His law practice in recent years has concentrated on his negotiating skill. His clients include independent oilmen and many of the Arabs who have made Vinson & Elkins their legal headquarters, and he works mostly on deals, operating at the highest business and financial levels. “If you’re after something like mineral rights in the Virgin Islands, you go to John,” says a law partner.
Connally regards negotiating the way some men view hunting or tennis: he does it for sport. So avid is his passion for personal negotiation that it led him into one of his most serious political miscalculations of the sixties. He simply did not understand demonstrators; he could not accept them and abhors them still. To him they didn’t play fair: their tactics were aimed against him, but they wouldn’t confront him directly. He went on television as governor to oppose the 1964 public accommodations law, a position history will not look kindly on, and he would not even receive striking Valley farm workers marching to Austin in 1966 to dramatize their plea for a state minimum wage. Instead Connally jumped in the big governor’s limousine and met the marchers in New Braunfels in what would become a famous confrontation. Connally told a priest leading the marchers that his door was open to the leaders of any group, but “I do not feel that as governor of this state I should lend the dignity of an office to dramatize any particular march.” Connally actually thought he’d pulled off a great coup by going to face the marchers—but again, that’s not how history has recorded the visit from the man in the limousine giving a lecture on dignity to the poor.
Connally tries very hard to turn his wheeler-dealer image into a strength, or at least neutralize its negative side, and on the campaign trail he seems to be doing pretty well at it. “They say ol’ John’s a wheeler-dealer,” he told one audience, “and they’re right, you bet I am. I know those wheeler-dealers in the Congress and I know how to deal with them.” On another occasion he said, “They say I’m tough, crude, a wheeler-dealer, that I’ll lose friends for this country, but I say if you’re going to run a twenty-eight-and-a-half-billion-dollar trade deficit, what’s the use of having friends? I don’t care if they like me. I’m running for president of the United States, not president of the world.” Then he delivered the line that invariably gets him the biggest applause, wherever he goes: “I say we should tell the Japanese that if they aren’t willing to accept Iowa beef and Florida citrus and Rhode Island manufactured goods, they had better be prepared to sit on the docks of Yokohama in their Toyotas, watching their own Sonys.”
That is vintage Connally, but how persuasive will it be in the long run? The problem with the wheeler-dealer image is not something that can readily be overcome: it is that negotiators do not ride easily on white horses; theirs is not a talent that inspires. Connally the wheeler-dealer cancels the strength of Connally the leader. Lyndon Johnson understood this; that’s why he soft-pedaled his own wheeler-dealer side as soon as he became president. Negotiators are hired guns, not leaders—good people to have on your side, but people to be respected and not loved.
One thing has always been consistent about John Connally: his belief in old-fashioned virtues. Then what was he doing in court?
Providence, Rhode Island, 1979. It is the beginning of a long day of campaigning. Today John Connally will give six speeches, shake three thousand hands, tour three ethnic neighborhoods, attend two coffees, a cocktail party, and a dinner party, and hold two press conferences. The first of these is a private breakfast session in his hotel suite with two writers from the local paper. The discussion follows the ordinary course until it turns to who the Democratic nominee will be.
“Teddy Kennedy,” says Connally. The unexpected candor so takes the reporters by surprise that it is Connally who breaks the silence: “Now, there would be a classic confrontation. There are so many things—personal lives, lifestyles, family, philosophy . . .” It is as whimsical a tone as you’re ever likely to hear from John Connally. The reporters come alive—“Tell me more,” one pleads as Connally’s voice trails off—but the moment is past. “I’ve said all I want to say,” Connally says. “For now.”
John Connally versus Teddy Kennedy. The dream race. Strength against strength. Connally has been promoting Teddy as the probable Democratic nominee for months now, no doubt because he thinks the Kennedy specter is advantageous to his own candidacy, but that is only part of it. John Connally longs to run against Teddy Kennedy, aches to run against him, and political differences are the least of the reasons. What really matters is virtue.
Virtue? The word does not associate easily with a man who less than five years ago was instructed to rise and face the jury, and in fact, John Connally’s political virtue has always been a little suspect. He worked for Lyndon Johnson at a time when Lyndon’s most trusted aides occasionally functioned as bagmen (“It would be illegal now,” says one old Johnson hand, “it wasn’t then”) and the taint of Box 13 and the 1948 senatorial election was still fresh. Nationally, his reputation has been slightly odoriferous ever since 1956, when President Eisenhower vetoed the Natural Gas Act because of what he called “arrogant lobbying,” including a bribe to a senator. Connally was never tied to the bribe itself, nor was he registered as a lobbyist, but as Sid Richardson’s lawyer he orchestrated the campaign to pass the bill.
The Connally administration in Austin was without scandal, but it was not without accusation. Connally was attacked for accepting at least $225,000 in deferred executor’s fees from the Richardson estate, a small matter made larger by a state constitutional prohibition against governors receiving fees for professional services. A 1966 opponent insisted that Connally had added 30,000 acres to his landholdings while governor. Actually it was more like 16,000, most of it the Tortuga Ranch in South Texas, plus 1000 acres added to his Floresville spread—a lot of land, to be sure, but not the sort of get-rich-quick deals characteristic of influence peddling. The bottom line is that Connally was not a rich man when he left the governor’s office. Neither was he worried about where his next meal was coming from. His net worth doubled while he was in office, from around half a million dollars to a million, but most of that was represented by ranchland. In fact, one reason he wanted out of politics was so he could accumulate real wealth—the same path followed by Lloyd Bentsen and Dolph Briscoe when they interrupted their political careers to get rich.
Much of the Capitol gossip about Connally and money seems to have stemmed, in retrospect, from Connally’s avid embracing of the spoils system. A great admirer of its inventor, Andrew Jackson—when he lived in Forth Worth in the fifties, one wall of his den was covered with Jackson-era cartoons and political memorabilia—Connally was a skilled practitioner of the help-your-friends, gut-your-enemies style of politics. Connally-era appropriations bills contained riders giving the governor veto power over state architectural and construction contracts, and he did not hesitate to use it. In 1964 a UT regent resigned in protest after a $90,000 contract was jerked from an El Paso architect who happened to be an active Republican; Connally’s close friend Frank Erwin, then both a regent and national Democratic committeeman, said bluntly that the governor regarded architectural contracts as “valuable gifts” to be bestowed only on friends.
Bank charters worked the same way. Before Connally, charters were hard to come by—indeed, impossible for anyone without connections to a big bank. That was incompatible with Connally’s vision of a state about to enter upon a period of explosive growth. Texas needed more banks and less conservative lending policies. He persuaded the Legislature to change the makeup of the banking board from three state officials to two officials and a governor’s appointee; then he named none other than the shrewdest political operator in all of Texas, Bob Strauss, to fill the slot. You can rest assured that Connally’s enemies did not open many banks in those years.
Connally used the spoils system to build an organization. There are only two ways to accomplish that—with patronage and with money—and for the sort of people Connally was after, patronage wouldn’t do. Government largesse helped keep people of influence around the state in the Democratic party and loyal to Connally. Such a system strays dangerously close to the line separating smart politics from corruption. The trick is to make sure that the largesse is always legitimate. Don’t hand out contracts for inflated prices or for work that isn’t done; don’t give out bank charters to stockholders who don’t meet the capital requirements. Connally preached playing it straight to every person he appointed to a major state position. He was obsessed by fear of scandal; it was the one administrative thing he cared about. He warned his friends not to support Preston Smith for governor, as some had pledged to do if Connally did not run again; Smith didn’t know how to run the system, he told them; he would be too lax, there would surely be a scandal. And sure enough, there was.
But even Connally could not avoid scandal forever. In the spring of 1971, while Preston Smith was trying futilely to divorce himself from the imbroglio surrounding Frank Sharp, Connally, now Secretary of the Treasury, advised Richard Nixon to raise federal price supports on milk. Eventually it would be alleged that he took a $10,000 bribe from old crony Jake Jacobsen to give that advice, and a jury of his peers, nine of them black, would decide whether John Connally should go to jail. The case turned first on whether Connally would simultaneously be tried for perjury—some embarrassing inconsistencies had crept into his pretrial testimony—but his lawyer was able to prevent it, and then the issue came down to whether John Connally or Jake Jacobsen was telling the truth. Witness after witness spoke up for Connally’s character: Bob McNamara, Dean Rusk, Billy Graham, Barbara Jordan, and Lady Bird Johnson, who said simply, “John is a man of integrity, a man of honor, and so known.” The jury chose Connally, and destiny was allowed to play out its course.
Now Connally is facing a larger jury, but to him the issue is still the same: virtue. Not political virtue, but the kind that is personal and old-fashioned—the kind where he best measures up against Teddy Kennedy, whose peccadillos need no recounting here. His belief in what he sees as the fundamental American values—which even Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter seems to have abandoned—shows up in every Connally speech: hard work (“We cannot continue to have the lowest productivity in the free world”); thrift (“We cannot go on penalizing Americans for saving”); patriotism (“The greatness of America is not past”). Connally frequently relates how his father drove a bus during the Depression (though he does not say his father owned the bus company); he sees himself as a self-made man matched against Teddy Kennedy, the least self-made public man in America. With perhaps too grandiloquent a sense of his own historical importance, Connally regards the 1980 election as the Great American Watershed that will decide whether the country will abandon for all time these traditional moral values. And, of course, he sees himself at the apex of that watershed. It is campaign rhetoric, but he believes it to his core.
This theme goes back far too long to be considered an expediency of the moment. Before he was wounded by Lee Harvey Oswald, he actually thought about calling a governor’s conference on morals and ethics. This was a man who talked seriously about devising a course to teach first-graders not to lie, cheat, steal, or covet. He does not smoke (he chews unlighted cigars) and his drinking is limited to wine with meals. He uses only mild profanity. He is fond of his wife. “He doesn’t think of the ordinary vices as sins, exactly,” said a former aide. “He thinks they are weaknesses. And he hates weakness.”
His political philosophy is similarly straitlaced. Fundamentally a pragmatist, Connally is not one to dwell on philosophical matters, but he does hold fast to the notion, very much out of fashion these days, that citizenship is not a right but a privilege. He favors a national sales tax because, he says, “Everybody ought to pay some tax.” As governor he proposed and passed the most restrictive voter-registration law in the country, one which required people to sign up every year during a brief period well in advance of elections. It was designed to reward those who viewed voting as a civic duty and to punish those who viewed it as a tool, and Connally said as much. He takes credit now for presiding over repeal of the poll tax, but he contributed little to the effort. He fretted publically about “bloc voting,” but what really irked him was that the blocs would not be voting for him, that they didn’t appreciate what his program of education and jobs meant to them. His almost Hamiltonian fear of the uneducated masses can be traced directly to their failure, in his eyes, to educate themselves about him. All this led Lyndon Johnson to say, a little unfairly, that “John has everything, but he doesn’t love the people.” Trust, not love, would have been more precise, but Lyndon, like most politicians, was caught up in the popular dogma of the day—an ever-expanding list of rights, an ever-shrinking list of responsibilities. Connally’s narrow view of the franchise sees a bit archaic, but who is to say, in this era of a lost national consensus, that his broader view of citizenship is without merit?
It’s on his bumper stickers, it’s in every speech, it’s the main theme of his campaign—but what does the record show?
Boca Raton, Florida, 1979. The tiny restaurant, decorated with hanging baskets and ceiling fans, could be anywhere in America. John Connally has come to talk about leadership, but from the beginning the occasion is a fiasco. The introduction, delivered by a strikingly tall woman, has the audience in nervous titters: “In an age of pygmies,” she intones, “his manhood stands out like a beacon in the dark.” Later, as if to mock Connally’s exhortations, the American flag behind the podium topples onto him.
It is a hard thing to get across, this idea of leadership at the heart of the Connally appeal. It is on his bumper stickers; it is in every speech. But what does it mean? Is it enough to say, as nearly everyone has, that Connally looks presidential? There can be no doubt about that. It’s not just the carriage and the height and the silver hair. Connally is always in absolute control of himself. He has an actor’s control over his body, and he is never out of character. His movements are crisp and definite without being affected. Even in an airplane or an automobile he sits so erect that he resembles one of those inflatable dummy passengers used in safety tests.
But there is another side to leadership—getting legislation passed, picking the right people for the right job, and keeping a self-serving bureaucracy in line. If Connally has always had the image, his performance as governor in the more practical areas of leadership is a little different story—different enough to raise some real questions about what would happen if he approached his presidency the same way.
John Connally was a Big Picture governor. He had definite ideas of where Texas was headed and how to get it there. About the future, at least, he turned out to be right, which counts for something. Connally was a decade ahead of his time: he foresaw what we now call the Sunbelt boom, and he knew Texas wasn’t ready to take advantage of it.
During his first campaign, Connally privately told the state’s business establishment, whose primary interest had always been to hold state spending to a minimum, that Texas was “a backward state,” and they were foolish and shortsighted to keep it that way. While Secretary of the Navy, he told them, he had seen hundreds of millions of dollars in defense contracts awarded to states like California, where sophisticated universities worked as partners with sophisticated industries. “Industry follows brainpower,” Connally said, “the coin of the realm of this new age.” He spoke out for less spending on college construction, where legislative pork-barreling and logrolling were rampant, and for more spending on faculty salaries, which he wanted to double, and on research. “Brains, not bricks” became the Connally slogan.
He also wanted the state to get into the tourist promotion business; the dollars spent would come back a hundredfold. But he knew that the parks board, and consequently the abysmal state park system, suffered from lack of political clout, and so he proposed merging it with the sportsmen-backed game and fish commission. Eventually he would come out for liquor by the drink, pari-mutuel betting, and a world’s fair for San Antonio to bring still more dollars into the state. John Connally was a cash-flow governor.
He was also a big spender—every biennium the Legislature had to raise taxes—and as activist a governor as Texas has ever had. Connally’s liberal enemies might not remember that he was championing some of their favorite issues almost two decades ago. In a move that anticipated by a dozen years the Sunset reforms of the seventies, Connally called for consolidating and eliminating a number of agencies—doubtless not losing sight of the fact that he would be able to fill all the seats on the new boards, not just vacancies. He was the first Texas governor to call for the creation of a public utility commission; he urged constitutional revision six years before the Legislature would assemble itself into a convention for that purpose; and he was so concerned about the condition of the state’s libraries that he called a conference on the subject.
Having the right ideas is part of leadership; selling them is no less important. Connally knew he could not persuade business lobbyists to support his spending ideas, so he beat them by going to their bosses. Connally’s appointments to his 25-member Committee on Education Beyond the High School was a guidebook to power in Texas: H.B. Zachary of San Antonio, George R. Brown of Houston, the chairmen of the boards of Humble Oil, Texas Instruments, General Telephone, and Shamrock Oil and Gas, the president of Ling-Temco-Vought, and on and on. They weren’t enthusiastic at first—but John Connally, in the words of a former top aide, “has a way of making things sound better than they are,” and in the end they embraced his vision. Faced by that kind of lineup, the Legislature, which in 1963 had refused to spend even the piddling $12 million more on higher education Connally had sought, two years later caved in and gave him everything he wanted: money, tenure at teacher colleges, a coordinating board to clamp down on local college empires.
That higher education fight is John Connally at his best: visionary, shrewd, tough (he refused to share his appointments to the study committee with the Speaker and the lieutenant governor, knowing how essential a blue-chip membership was to his strategy). When Connally was passionately interested in an issue, he could hold a clinic on leadership. When he wasn’t, which was all too often, things muddled along about as they did before and after him.
His worst shortcomings do not augur well for a Connally presidency. He did not get along well with the Legislature, just as Jimmy Carter has not gotten along well with Congress (and for many of the same reasons). That didn’t really change until Connally appointed a hostile Speaker to the Railroad Commission, opening the way for his own protégé Ben Barnes. He paid little attention to the administrative side of his job and he didn’t use his appointment power to follow through on his programs. Connally was a fast starter and a very slow finisher. Most of his accomplishments were behind him by the middle of the 1965 legislative session, though he served almost four more years.
Connally took office without quite realizing what the Legislature was like. They had no real interest in his vision of Texas; they were consumed by the things Texas Legislatures always fight over: interest rates, industrial safety, tax breaks—trees rather than forests. His first Legislature made it a crime to display the United Nations flag in Texas. Connally does not suffer fools gladly, and legislatures have a propensity toward foolishness. Perhaps Connally could, as he said, get along with Congress, but he starts with no innate fondness for the legislative process. A U.S. Senate seat could have been his for the asking, but he didn’t want it. Legislatures reward longevity, not productivity.
If Connally didn’t like the Legislature, the feeling was reciprocated. Senators, especially, resented the fact that Connally didn’t invite them to his office or seek their advice; he was too aloof, they said and soon they changed the description to arrogant, a label that has stuck to his day. Whatever the precise term, it was responsible for the turning point in his administration. Connally had appointed St. John Garwood, an eminent Austin lawyer and jurist, to the UT Board of Regents, but the Senate turned him down after Garwood said, “Any errors I make as a regent will be on the side of integration and academic freedom.” The vote that sealed Garwood’s rejection, however, came from a disgruntled liberal who did the deed, he said, “just to let the governor know I exist.” Thereafter, most of the names Connally sent to the Senate were people whose chief credentials were political. There was one notable exception, one time when Connally exhibited what he today defines as an essential element of leadership: the willingness to make the tough choices. Connally appointed a black, the Reverend C.A. Holliday of Fort Worth, to the prison board, and when a delegation of senators called on the governor to say that was unacceptable, he told them that if Holliday was busted, he’d appoint another Negro, and another, and another; they’d have to bust every black man in Texas before he’d quit. Holliday was confirmed, 25-4.
But for the most part, Connally made the easy choice to value loyalty above quality. He even went so far as to name to the Air Control Board the president of a firm that Harris County health officials had cited as polluter of the month. And his regental appointment after Garwood was National Democratic Committeeman Frank Erwin, who, though appointed by a governor committed to “brains, not bricks,” became the most prolific builder in UT history and doubled enrollment—precisely the opposite result from Connally’s own program.
In fact, many a pet Connally program was ultimately done in, or ignored form the start, by the very people Connally named to see it through—not surprisingly, since he seldom discussed policy with them. One appointee who served on two boards under Connally said he never once got any direction from the governor. They talked, yes, but about state convention politics, not about policy. Connally was an unenthusiastic administrator who above all hated detail—a characteristic anyone who has ever worked for him remembers with mock horror. Staffers would sit around and argue over who would have the best chance of getting Connally to look at, say, a grant proposal, and everyone had a nominee other than himself.
He had no luck at all in getting cooperation from the bureaucracy, and at the end of his term he lamented, “Nobody works for the governor. Administrators won’t volunteer anything. I never know anything except by hearsay.” One can almost imagine Jimmy Carter, so maligned by Connally, saying exactly the same thing. But administrators had their complaints too; they grumped to the press that Connally was inaccessible and uncommunicative. Without leadership from the governor, his idea of community-based care was shunted aside for more traditional approaches at the new Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The merged Parks and Wildlife Department was a shambles from the start, forever consumed by arguments over such matters as which branch should pay for pencils; Connally would later recall it as his biggest failure. Even his beloved Coordinating Board had labor pains and never achieved the stature Connally envisioned. In all, his was a record not unlike Jimmy Carter’s: high goals, mediocre accomplishments, too wide a gap between rhetoric and performance.
Connally’s record as Secretary of the Treasury, at least in terms of his relations with the legislative branch, was much improved over his record as governor. He pushed the Lockheed load through Congress, and he helped make the case for revenue sharing. Connally cites those examples in his campaign speeches as evidence of his ability to get along with Congress. His motto, he says, is that “it’s better to be feared than loved,” and, of course, Jimmy Carter tried the reverse approach and got nowhere. But Connally was more lobbyist than statesman; he could advocate the administration’s programs without taking the heat for Richard Nixon’s personal and political shortcomings—something he could not do as president.
It also remains to be seen whether he can force himself to deal with the drudgery of administration. His distaste for it goes too far back; that is a fundamental part of his personality. It is easy to envision John Connally so preoccupied with Japanese trade negotiations that he’d ignore the kind of petty outrages bureaucrats perpetrate daily when unbridled—to name one example, the way the Interstate Commerce Commission keeps letting railroads raise coal rates to subsidize their losses elsewhere. The government is full of sinecures, and unless the man at the top lets it be known he will have none of such shenanigans and follows up on the commitment, the agencies will erode his strength and support.
But if Connally has not changed, maybe the rest of us have. Connally’s economic theories, which so many saw as elitist a decade ago, are more palatable today, made so by the deepening economic crisis and the futility of the old Keynesian solutions. After Richard Nixon’s gang brought real criminal conduct to the highest levels of government, perhaps we are ready to make the distinction between a Connally-type spoils system and corruption. And surely Jimmy Carter is evidence enough that having a wheeler-dealer in the White House wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.
What are his chances of getting there? Most preference polls have him running fourth among Republicans behind Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Howard Baker. But Ford isn’t running, at least not yet, and Baker’s strength is exposure rather than money or organization. Connally strategists believe that the real race for the nomination is between their man and Reagan, and they claim to be confident that Reagan can’t hang on. They say his age is showing, that in his rare public appearances he seems like a parody of himself (but hasn’t he always?), that his campaign is half a million dollars in debt, that once Reagan starts to slip, the front-runner syndrome that destroyed Muskie in 1972 will ensnare him. If he starts to slip. The New Hampshire primary is on February 26. The Illinois primary comes on March 18. If Reagan isn’t beaten by Illinois, the prevailing wisdom goes, he won’t be beaten at all; if he is beaten even once, he’s finished. So the idea is to stop him somewhere, anywhere, and then start jockeying for position with the other survivors. Connally is years behind Reagan in organization; he has no chance to win in a primary that puts a premium on organization, like New Hampshire’s. His best shot at Reagan is in one of the Southeastern primaries on March 11—Alabama, Georgia, or, most likely, Florida, where he ran virtually even with Reagan in Republican presidential preference caucuses this fall.
Connally believes that the ultimate success of his campaign depends on whether he can convince people to penetrate what he calls the myths that surround him. But the myths are not really myths at all: they are the dark side of John Connally. His real problem is to convince skeptics that there is another side, and that this many internal contradictions will be resolved for the better. Only then can they decide if they want what Connally really is: the precursor of an American meritocracy, a society run by and for winners, where the smart and the sensible and the productive can at last get about the business of running the country.
And so the question of John Connally’s personality goes to the jury one last time. It is a jury composed largely of ordinary people, and perhaps one of them should have the last word. As Connally ended his tour of that Italian neighborhood in Providence, the procession of candidate, staff, and police was making its way back toward the waiting motorcade when a wizened, unshaven man wearing a faded green T-shirt reached out to him. “When you’re president,” the little man implored, “don’t forget about the poor.” But it was too late. Connally had already ducked into his waiting limousine, to pursue his destiny, for good or for evil, and the message of this modern soothsayer went unheard.
From Texas Monthly
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