The Importance of Being John Connally
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Texas has a long history of producing powerful politicians who have fixed their eye on the White House. A Johnson did it successfully, as did two Bushes. A Nance Garner came close. More often than not, however, the campaign trail is filled with those who tried and failed: Lloyd Bentsen, Ross Perot, Phil Gramm, Rick Perry (so far, anyway), and, yes, John Connally.
The run-up to the 1980 presidential election was the occasion for Paul Burka’s 10,000-word cover story from November 1979 on the former governor who had switched parties, joined the Nixon administration, and survived the Milk Fund scandal. (Connally has the distinction of being the first politician to appear on the cover of Texas Monthly, in September 1973, and the first person to be on the cover twice.) Burka starts off with this terrific opening scene, which at once puts Connally on full display:
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?
The story takes an epic view of one of the most influential governors in the state’s history, in which various figures—LBJ, Bob Bullock, Don Yarborough, Charlie Wilson, and a man who looks like Ned Beatty from Deliverance—make appearances. I read this story for the first time nearly twenty years ago, and I was always struck by this scene from 1967—and how perfectly Burka tells it:
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.
That toughness, and the price Connally sometimes paid for it, becomes a theme of the piece. “We did not have much of a relationship,” Burka says, “and despite all the time I spent with him reporting the story, Connally was always remote. I do remember getting a call from Frank Erwin after the story came out, and he chewed me out for the last scene, which he accused me of making up. Of course I didn’t make it up, and I thought it really captured part of the problem of being John Connally.”