The Truth about John Connally

Does this man belong on a white horse?

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.

Toughness

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,

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