Connally, John Bowden, Jr.

views updated Jun 11 2018

Connally, John Bowden, Jr.

(b. 27 February 1917 in Floresville, Texas; d. 15 June 1993 in Houston, Texas), governor of Texas, secretary of the U.S. Navy, secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and adviser to three U.S. presidents.

Connally was one of eight children born to John B. Connally, Sr., and Lela Wright, tenant farmers. Connally attended public schools in San Antonio and Floresville, graduating from the high school in Floresville in 1933. That same year he enrolled at the University of Texas, earning his B.A. degree in 1935 and LL.B. in 1941. Tall, lantern-jawed, and possessing a shock of jet-black hair, Connally proved a captivating leading man at the university theater. He won election as student body president in 1938, and between 1939 and 1941 served as an aide to Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat of Texas. Connally’s restless ambition, love of politics, and close association with Johnson remained important threads throughout his public life. His private life centered around Idanell (“Nellie”) Brill, whom he married on 21 December 1940. They had four children.

Connally’s early career paralleled that of Johnson. He enlisted in the naval reserves in 1941 and during World War II briefly served as an aide to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Connally was reassigned to the Pacific theater and stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Essex, on which he experienced some of the fiercest fighting of the war. He attained the rank of lieutenant commander and earned two Bronze Stars for valor. In 1945 Connally returned to Texas to practice law and run an Austin radio station. He managed Lyndon Johnson’s 1946 congressional race and successful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1948. Connally’s role in fishing up the requisite ballots to ensure Johnson’s triumph, by eighty-seven votes, remains in dispute. But the younger man clearly understood the essentials of Texas politics: controlling the machine vote in the Rio Grande Valley and securing large amounts of cash from contributors.

During the 1950s Connally struck a conservative pose, becoming an attorney and lobbyist for the Texas oil magnate Sid W. Richardson. He acquired holdings in real estate and ranching, apparently determined, like Johnson, to escape forever the poverty of his youth. Devoted to politics, Connally bolted his party in 1952 and supported Eisenhower for president. Four years later he returned to the fold, joining with liberal Texans to wrest the state Democratic party from conservative governor Allan Shivers and deliver it to Johnson. Connally’s ruthlessness stunned Johnson, who privately remarked that his protégé lacked “even the tiniest trace of compassion.” While managing Johnson’s unsuccessful bid for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Connally circulated rumors of John F. Kennedy’s poor health. Nevertheless, because of his relationship with Johnson, who became Kennedy’s running mate, and Texas’s pivotal role in the election, the president-elect named Connally secretary of the navy in December 1960.

The subcabinet position did not satisfy Connally’s ambition. He maintained cordial relations with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, even though McNamara usurped authority from the service secretaries. Connally resigned from his navy post late in 1961 to seek the Texas governorship. Financial and organizational support allowed Connally to become visible, and he led the Democratic primary after the initial balloting. Outspending Don Yarborough, his liberal challenger in the runoff, Connally appeared daily on television and crossed ideological lines, promising business growth and improvements in education. He took 51.2 percent of the vote against Yarborough in the Democratic primary and 54.2 percent against Republican Jack Cox in the fall general election. Connally closed his campaign in flashy style, with a nonstop, forty-eight-hour tour of the state.

A year later tragedy transformed Connally into a national figure. On 22 November 1963 he was riding through Dallas in Kennedy’s open-topped limousine when an assassin shot the president. Connally survived after sustaining wounds to his back, chest, wrist, and thigh. The governor thought that the rifle might have been aimed at him rather than at the president, since the accused assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, had unsuccessfully petitioned the Navy Department to upgrade his undesirable discharge from the Marine Corps. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that a single bullet had passed through Kennedy’s neck and Connally’s torso and wrist before penetrating the governor’s thigh seemed incredible to many Americans, including Connally. His wounding and slow, but highly public, recovery insulated Connally from criticism, easing his reelection in 1964 and 1966.

As governor Connally charted a more conservative course than either Kennedy or Johnson. While investing greater funds in higher education and mental health care, he showed less interest in primary and secondary schooling. Connally was no cheerleader for Johnson’s Great Society legislation, except when the states attained control over its programs. His conservatism extended to race, where Connally criticized both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and federal efforts to protect voting rights, affirming that Texas could advance in these areas without outside prompting. Although Connally appointed African Americans and His-panics to state offices and distanced himself from the crudest forms of white resistance, he opposed sweeping changes for minorities. In 1966, when Mexican-American workers marched 400 miles on behalf of a minimum farm wage law, Connally traveled thirty miles to meet them and explain his opposition. He then drove away and did not greet the marchers when they arrived in Austin.

Connally’s “swagger” became central to his political style. “John Connally epitomized the big man of Texas,” wrote James Reston, Jr., his biographer. “Connally personifies confidence,” the Houston Chronicle purred in 1964. “Defeat is not in his make-up. Retreat is not in his vocabulary.” Occupying a weak office, the governor placed loyal associates on state boards and wielded power with relish. One-time Democratic National Committee Chair Robert S. Strauss called Connally “one of the ablest men I ever knew.” His elegant attire, good looks, and suave manners fostered a “wheeler-dealer” persona. The governor enhanced his macho image in 1967, when he traveled alongside several well-known sportsmen on a six-week-long safari in Africa. Whatever their differences were over domestic issues, Connally strongly backed Johnson’s military intervention in Vietnam.

Connally seemed out of place in a Democratic party moving toward the left, and he declined to run for reelection in 1968. Connally’s conservative record and stand on Vietnam hindered his chances for gaining a spot on the Democratic ticket that year. At the party’s convention, he led the fight for the administration’s Vietnam plank and helped dissuade Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the presidential nominee, from modifying his support of Johnson’s war policies. Connally backed Humphrey without zeal, partly because the vice president had not considered him as a running mate. In 1969 Connally joined the Houston law firm of Vinson and Elkins.

Connally gradually found a home among the Republicans. In 1969 President Richard Nixon named him to an advisory commission to reorganize the executive branch. Impressed with the results, he appointed Connally secretary of the treasury in 1971. An air of skepticism greeted the Texan; when asked about his economic credentials, Connally said: “I can add.” He secured $250 million in loans to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and persuaded Nixon to impose wage and price controls to arrest inflation. Under Connally the United States went off the gold standard, which led to a devalued dollar and floating currencies. Bargaining with European and Japanese representatives, Connally won an increase in the price of gold and exchange rates favorable for selling U.S. goods abroad. In the short run, these programs, known as the “New Economic Policy,” curtailed inflation and unemployment and facilitated Nixon’s reelection. In the long run, the lifting of controls helped prompt the “Great Inflation” of 1973, setting up the “Great Recession” of 1974. But throughout his brief tenure, Connally brought color to a drab cabinet. In 1971, the New York Times columnist James Reston tagged him “the spunkiest character in Washington” for telling business and labor leaders “to get off their duffs” if they wanted more jobs, profits, and trade.

In May 1972 Connally left the government to head “Democrats for Nixon.” The president thought highly of Connally and weighed making the Texan his running mate in 1972. According to Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, “Connally’s swaggering self-assurance was Nixon’s Walter Mitty image of himself.” Nixon said that along with himself and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, only Connally fully understood the uses of power. In 1973 the Texan registered as a Republican and became, for two months, a presidential adviser during the Watergate affair. Nixon wanted to appoint him vice president after Spiro T. Agnew’s resignation, but the idea offended Democrats, whom Connally had spurned, and Republicans remained wary of the convert. Connally soon faced charges of corruption himself. In 1975 a federal court acquitted him of accepting a $10,000 bribe in exchange for backing a raise in price supports for milk producers. After serving on President Gerald R. Ford’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Connally returned to his Houston law firm and sat on several corporate boards.

The Texan never fulfilled the political promise that others saw in him. Although Connally’s ties to Nixon hurt his electoral prospects, he showed interest in the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1976 and sought the GOP’s presidential nod in 1980. Connally lost the latter contest to Ronald Reagan, after spending $11 million in the primaries and collecting just one convention delegate. He abandoned politics in favor of financial pursuits, but a series of bad investments forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1988. With his once spacious ranch reduced to two hundred acres, Connally admitted, “I know what it is to be poor,” but he emerged from bankruptcy within a year. Connally died in Houston of a pulmonary fibrosis in 1993. He is buried at Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Connally symbolized the movement of white southerners, a historically conservative group, from Democratic to Republican allegiance. But for all his ability and guile, the Texan failed to inspire trust, and he proved unable to secure a place on the national ticket of either party. Connally’s notoriety also came from serving powerful presidents whose actions alienated voters and tarnished their brightest protégés.

Connally’s papers are housed at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. Connally’s memoir (with Mickey Herskowitz) is In History’s Shadow: An American Odyssey (1993). An early biography is Charles Ashman, Connally: The Adventures of Big Bad John (1974). The standard biography is James Reston, Jr., The Lone Star: The Life of John Connally (1989). Connally’s service in the Nixon administration is covered in Henry Kissinger, White House Years (1979); Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (1994); and Allen J. Matusow, Nixon’s Economy: Booms, Busts, Dollars, and Votes (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 June 1993).

Dean J. Kotlowski

John Bowden Connally Jr

views updated May 14 2018

John Bowden Connally Jr.

Former Texas governor John Bowden Connally, Jr. (1917-1993), political adviser and confidant to both Democratic and Republican presidents and a candidate for the presidency in 1980, helped shape American economic policy as secretary of the treasury during the Richard M. Nixon administration.

John B. Connally, Jr., one of seven children, was born in Floresville, Texas, on February 27, 1917, to John Bowden Connally, a tenant farmer, and Lela (Wright) Connally. After attending public schools in San Antonio and Floresville he entered the University of Texas where he earned a law degree in 1941. Connally's introduction to politics occurred in 1937 when Lyndon B. Johnson, a former administrator of the Texas division of the National Youth Administration entered the race for the 10th District congressional seat vacated by the death of Walter Buchanan. Connally, then a University of Texas undergraduate and former student body president, volunteered for Johnson's successful campaign. When Congressman Johnson was elected to a full term in 1938 he hired Connally as his administrative assistant, thus beginning a 30-year political association. Connally remained in Washington one year and then returned to Austin to complete his law degree. In 1940 he married Idanell Brill, a University of Texas student.

Immediately upon graduating from law school Connally entered the U.S. Navy. While serving in the Office of Naval Operations he worked on General Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff and helped plan the allied invasion of Italy in 1943. Later Connally won a Bronze Star for bravery while serving as a fighter-plane director aboard the aircraft carrier USS Essex. Connally returned to civilian life in 1946 and founded radio station KVET in Austin. Two years later he managed Lyndon Johnson's successful Senate campaign and again served as Johnson's administrative assistant for one year before returning to Texas.

In 1952 Connally became the attorney for oil multimillionaire Sid W. Richardson. Connally's frequent jumps between government and business continued throughout his career and established his image as a "wheeler-dealer" willing, according to his critics, to parlay his position for private profit. Connally, however, argued that financially successful public servants were less subject to compromise and thus could best act in the public interest.

Connally skillfully manipulated his political and business ties. While serving as a Washington lobbyist for the oil and national gas industry he remained active in Texas politics and helped Lyndon Johnson gain control over the state Democratic Party in 1956. In 1960 he managed Johnson's unsuccessful presidential campaign and later helped Johnson obtain the vice-presidential nomination at the Democratic convention. When the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was elected in 1960 Vice-President Johnson helped obtain Connally's 1961 appointment as secretary of the Navy. Connally held the Navy post 11 months before resigning to successfully run for governor of Texas, his only elective office.

Ten months after becoming governor John Connally was abruptly thrust into the national prominence. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while being driven through Dallas, Texas. Governor Connally, also in the presidential limousine, was wounded. While Connally and Kennedy differed on most issues the two men were linked in the public's mind and the notoriety aided the governor in his 1964 and 1966 reelection campaigns.

Connally was a politically conservative governor who promoted economic growth and aggressively expanded the Texas University system. He opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the anti-poverty campaign, Medicare, federal aid to education, and most of the other "Great Society" programs created by President Lyndon Johnson, his former boss and mentor. Johnson frequently remarked that his former congressional aide had no compassion for the poor despite Connally's own childhood poverty. Connally fully supported American involvement in Vietnam and while heading the Texas delegation to the 1968 Democratic convention he pushed through a pro-war plank despite determined liberal opposition and anti-war demonstrations outside the convention hall. However, Connally gave lukewarm support to Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.

At the end of his third term as governor Connally moved to Houston to become a senior partner in Vinson and Elkins, one of the largest law firms in the nation. However, in December 1970 President Richard Nixon in a surprise move appointed Connally secretary of the treasury. When skeptical reporters asked his qualifications for a post normally held by a banker, Connally quipped, "I can add." Connally's candor and wit won praise in Washington, and he quickly emerged as the principal administration spokesman for economic policy. But his abrasive style offended European and Japanese trade negotiators, while his unconditional endorsement of the government bailout of the nearly bankrupt Lockheed Corporation sparked opposition from Defense Secretary David Packard and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur Burns. Connally's hard bargaining tactics eventually alienated Secretary of State William Rogers and national security adviser Henry Kissinger. As opposition in the Nixon administration grew, Connally was ultimately forced to resign in June 1972.

Despite his cabinet experience Connally remained a loyal Nixon supporter who in August 1972 organized the "Democrats for Nixon" committee. Connally soon became one of the president's closest political advisers, and on May 1, 1973, he joined the Republican Party. Connally's close association with the White House prompted allegations of his involvement in the Watergate scandals. In March 1973 a House subcommittee charged he had interfered with a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. Three months later White House counsel John Dean testified that Connally had participated in top level discussions on stopping the Watergate probe. On July 28, 1974, a federal grand jury indicted Connally for taking an illegal gratuity, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and perjury in connection with his alleged acceptance of $10,000 from the Associated Milk Producers, a dairy lobby, in 1971. Connally pleaded not guilty, and in April 1975 he was acquitted.

With the milk scandal trial four years past, Connally in 1979 began his quest for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. Declaring "business is the lifeblood of our country, the source of our greatness," he called for corporate tax cuts, accelerated depreciation, less governmental regulation, and unlimited nuclear power development while promising to slash wasteful federal social programs and "parasitic, burgeoning government bureaucracy." Connally entered the early 1980 presidential primaries confident of victory. But after three grueling months of campaigning and spending $12 million, far more than his political opponents, he had only one delegate to show for his efforts. Connally then staked his political future on a decisive win over the GOP front-runner, former California governor Ronald Reagan, in the March 8 South Carolina primary. When Reagan won the primary, 63-year-old John Connally withdrew from the race and retired from politics.

No longer a political figure, Connally joined the oil industry. With the oil shortage of the early 1980s looming over the United States, Connally and a few business partners started Chapman Energy in 1981. For the next few years, Connally and his partners developed shopping centers, office buildings, other businesses, and real estate ventures. By 1983, Chapman Energy was worth an estimated $300 million. But disaster struck as the price of oil took a nose-dive, under $10 per barrel, in the mid-1980s. Chapman Energy was forced to liquidate all of its assets and ownings, and on July 31, 1987, Connally filed for personal bankruptcy.

Connally managed to recover from this setback, and appeared in several commercials for University Savings, promoting financial prudence. He was made a member on the board of pipeline operator at Coastal Corporation in 1988, and continued to live comfortably with his wife, Nellie, in their ranch house in Floresville. Connally succumbed to his long-term battle with pulmonary fibrosis, a condition caused by the gunshot wounds he received almost 30 years earlier, on June 15, 1993. He was 76.

Further Reading

The best biographies of Connally are Charles Ashman, Connally: The Adventures of Big Bad John (1979) and A. F. Crawford and J. Keever, John B. Connally: Portrait in Power (1973). Other information on Connally can be found in Ronnie Dugger, The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson (1982) and Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1983). For a discussion of Connally's years as governor of Texas see Robert Sobel and John Raimo, editors, Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978 (1978). □

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