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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 401

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This is the grave of John Connally.

Born in 1917 in Floresville, Texas, Connally grew up pretty poor. His parents were tenant farmers. But not only did he graduate from high school, he went on to the University of Texas and then a law degree at the same school. He became a rising star, well-connected in the world of Texas politics, which would serve him well his whole career. During World War II, Connally became a naval officer and a fast rising aide to leading generals, first James Forrestal and then Dwight Eisenhower. He won the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit for his actions leading troops in the Pacific in the second half of the war and left the Navy in 1946 as a lieutenant commander. He returned to Texas and his law, but was quickly plucked up by his friend Lyndon Johnson to be a top aide.

By the 1960 election, Connally was LBJ’s top man and was whipping up convention votes to get his mentor elected. He didn’t hesitate in using the dirt either, claiming JFK’s health was too poor and noting his reliance on cortisone shots to get through. Too little, too late, but when Kennedy selected Johnson as his VP and then they defeated Nixon, Connally got his reward–Secretary of the Navy, a pretty sweet gig. He tried to fight off an independent air force taking away the Navy’s role in the space program and also engaged in a naval goodwill mission of sorts, sending the fleet to the Mediterranean and having the Navy engage in charitable work. But he only stayed in the office 11 months because he decided to run for electoral office himself–governor of Texas.

Connally was a right-wing business capitalist basically. He wasn’t Orval Faubus or George Wallace on race, in the sense that he wasn’t going to demagogue the issue. He was simply going to oppose every possible gain that people of color might make. He ran as the conservative option in the primary against the liberal Houston attorney Don Yarborough and in a close vote, defeated him. Now, normally, the winner of the Democratic primary was assured the seat, but the transition of the South to the Republican Party as the White Man’s Party was already beginning, so he faced a tough general election opponent in Jack Cox, a Houston oil executive who had just switched to the Republicans the previous year. Connally won 54-46 by making the party switch a big deal, which became ironic later on.

Connally is famous for getting shot with JFK. If it wasn’t for this, he wouldn’t be known today because he really wore that bloody shirt for the rest of his career. But he took a bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald as well. He later questioned the Warren Commission’s finding that there was only one shooter, but since I find nothing in American history more tiresome than JFK assassination talk I am just going to leave it at that. Connally however rode that fame the rest of his career. He instantly donated his blood stained suit to the Texas National Archives, which is a name that annoys me for the precise reason that Texas always annoys me. It was on display for years before finally being taken down. As governor, Connally was basically meh. He won re-election in 1964 and 1966, expanding education and of course supporting business interests. He was generally a jerk as well. He showed up to the 1964 Texas AFL-CIO convention to tell unionists that he would do nothing for him. In 1966, when a march of Mexican migrant workers to Austin arrived, he drove out there, told the migrants he disliked them and they were wasting their time, and drove away. Said one of his associates a decade later, “I think because John made it so well on his own, he doesn’t respect people who need a union or a civil‐rights group or a special poverty program to make it.”

In 1968, Connally wanted to be Humphrey’s VP candidate but that went to Ed Muskie. While Connally publicly supported Humphrey, privately, he was probably working with the Nixon campaign. In fact, there were rumors of Connally working behind the scenes for Republican candidates in the 1950s as well, especially Eisenhower, as Adlai Stevenson was far too liberal for him. Certainly Nixon was very comfortable with him and in 1971, named him Secretary of the Treasury. Connally had one demand though–he wanted Nixon to give a federal job to George Bush, the Republican that the still-Democrat Connally felt some need to protect, although he later claimed they hated each other. Bush had nearly defeated Lloyd Bentsen in the 1970 Senate race and as the leading Republican in Texas, Bush needed to be taken care of. So Nixon threw him the job of UN ambassador and Connally took the Treasury job. So we can partly blame Connally for Bush being forced upon the nation. At Treasury, Connally’s main role was helping get the U.S. off the gold standard, Nixon’s signature financial policy. He didn’t really support Nixon’s wage and price guidelines as inflation began seeping into the American economy. And like his Navy position, he didn’t last long.

In 1972, Connally left the Cabinet to head Democrats for Nixon. Or should I put Democrats in quotation marks? Basically, these were war-mongering racist Democrats who hated George McGovern and were fine with white supremacy and killing the Vietnamese in an endless war for no good reason. Connally wasn’t quite ready to break with the Democrats entirely and endorsed Harold Barefoot Sanders over John Tower for the Senate race. But then again, Sanders was also a close LBJ advisor, even though he was pretty liberal and was important in the Voting Rights Act. But in 1973, with Johnson dead, Connally finally became a Republican. He was considered to replace Spiro Agnew as VP, but Gerald Ford got that nod instead. The ever colorful Bob Bullock was disgusted with Connally, noting “…I got some ideas on Mr. Connally. He ain’t never done nothin’ but get shot in Dallas. He got the silver bullet. He needs to come back here and get hisself shot once every six months. I attack Connally on his vanity. He’s terribly bad vain, y’know…”

Connally was also pretty corrupt. That was hardly unknown in Texas politics. But in 1974, he got busted for getting $10,000 for influencing a legal decision made on milk prices. He was acquitted in part because he cashed in every favor he had to get character witnessed that included Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Jordan, and Billy Graham. Even though there was plenty of belief that he was perjuring himself on the stand, which Texans weren’t going to listen to Lady Bird and Billy Graham?

Connally decided to run for president in 1980. He was a real class act. Thinking he would win and that he would face Ted Kennedy, he said publicly when asked about nuclear power, “I’ll tell you one thing. More people died at Chappaquiddick than at Three Mile Island.” He was always good at raising money (from Charles Keating among others) but it was a poorly run campaign with bad strategy. He went all-in to win South Carolina, but Reagan wiped him out 55-30 there and that was it. He endorsed Reagan after that and helped him defeat Bush in Texas to secure the nomination. He largely tended to his business interests after that, but he went bankrupt in 1986. He died in 1993 of pulmonary fibrosis.

John Connally is buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

This post was supported by LGM reader contributions and I definitely enjoyed having a reason to go into the details of what an awful person Connally was. I could have gone on quite a bit longer, but 1200 words seems like more than enough. If you would like this series to cover other people who ran for the 1980 Republican primary, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Howard Baker is in Huntsville, Tennessee and the unforgettable Phil Crane is in Hillsboro, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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