John Connally Between the Acts
He wears homburgs in Texas and stetsons in Zurich; likes coq au vin and cheeseburgers; may be the most skilled politician of the decade; and he wants to be president. Maybe.
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When John Connally came to Texas in 1961 to discuss with Texas Democratic leaders the possibility of running for governor, he stepped off the airplane wearing a black pin-striped suit, a black vest, and a Homburg hat. Austin attorney and lobbyist Will Davis, one of the group along with Frank C. Erwin, Jr., and Ben Barnes (all of whom later became avid Connally supporters), commented, “We can’t elect a man in a Homburg hat governor of Texas.”
But elect him they did; not once but three times. And being elected governor of Texas in a Homburg hat was just one of a mounting record of contradiction, mystery, elegance, political skill, good fortune, and general charisma that have made Connally into top news for political and social columnists alike. A former Democrat, he comes closer than any other Republican to matching Teddy Kennedy in the Gallup poll. A rough, tough, gut politician, he can spend hours reading novels or browsing through museums, antique shops, ancient ruins. A newly appointed Treasury Secretary with little formal economic training, he quickly became the match for the financial wizards of Europe. A man of impeccable class, he also buys ready-made suits on sale and would as soon have grilled cheese and iced tea as coq au vin.
There is no mistaking Connally’s charismatic appeal to people throughout the United States and around the world. Part of the charisma comes from his appearance and manner, both of which he orchestrates carefully for the desired effect. Part comes from his proud insistence on his own privacy, an insistance which has made him into a man of mystery alternately hungry and then indifferent about power, the sort of man who stands out like hard marble amid the oozing clay of the Nixon administration. Part comes from being wounded at the assassination of President Kennedy; and part comes from sheer political skill.
Connally’s prominence has brought him stout defenders and bitter enemies, and none so stout or so bitter as in Texas, his home ground. To the business establishment and large segments of the white middle and lower middle class, he is a hero, the most effective defender of traditional values the state and the country has had in a long time. To Texas liberals, official labor leaders and minorities, Connally is nothing short of anathema, although even the liberals will admit a grudging admiration for Connally’s skills and ability. Texas has known John Connally a lot longer than have the rest of the country and the world, and right here, down home, is the place to begin understanding what gives the man his charisma, his energies, and his power.
Connally ranks with Teddy Kennedy as one of the few politicians about whom people feel the same sort of curiosity as about movie stars. The curiosity extends to the details of his life, his habits, his tastes, his preferences in food and drink, and his desire for privacy and personal forms of relaxation.
In examining Connally, it is at times difficult to separate the conscious effort from the natural inclination, since part of Connally’s image is the conscious creation of the politician who believes firmly in style, and part is the private man who is going to do as he damn well pleases.
What Connally wears ranges from the most precise of European fashion, to store-bought suits on sale, to Western garb. Connally’s Texas image was never more flamboyant than when he rode in the 1963 San Antonio Stock Show dressed in a whipcord cowboy suit, boots, silk shirt, and honorary sheriff’s badge. He visited with French businessmen touring the United States after the show, and surprised the men by whipping off his coat and loosening his tie to show them the labels—Christian Dior and Neiman-Marcus.
Connally’s choices in haberdashery caught the eye of Washington columnists. Maxine Cheshire of the Washington Post commented in 1970 on Connally’s evening attire.
(Former) Texas Gov. John Connally’s attire attracted a lot of attention at the (White House) party. He wore an outfit that can best be described as ‘Midnight Blue Cowboy.’
His Tex Ritter tuxedo was two tones of azure and delphinium, with piping around the double-breasted jacket and four large mother-of-pearl buttons.
His shirt was two different tones of blue and so was his large bow-tie.
His wavy white hair is shorter, but otherwise, he looked so much like his close friend, former President Johnson, that some guests were startled.
‘He found Lyndon’s tailor,’ someone whispered, ‘Now if he just finds his barber, they’ll be twins.’
Connally has always been particular about what he eats and what he drinks. If something didn’t please him, he would display his famous flaring temper or lapse into fits of sulking, a trait that dates from his childhood days back at the ranch in Wilson County. The coffee his office staff prepared for him never quite suited the governor. One former employee recalls that, “It was never right. We tried every type of pot, but couldn’t satisfy him. I remember him screaming one day, ‘This is the worst goddamn coffee I’ve ever tasted.’ He thought the best was boiled in a pot. He liked Folger’s coffee, and I remember the time he found out that a woman in the office had been buying whatever type of coffee was on sale and pouring it into a Folger’s can. He was furious.”
Connally’s drinking habits have received an inordinate amount of space in the press, with Connally reported both as consuming large amounts of whiskey and as a complete teetotaler. The vestiges of his Methodist upbringing in Floresville, Texas still hang on, and Connally doesn’t drink hard liquor. And he cannot tolerate drunks; too much booze is a sign of weakness. Connally sips wine and prefers white Burgundies, such as Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne.
Connally’s former aide and sometime business associate Mike Meyers says that for years Connally sipped cokes at parties, but even his close friends, seeing him with a glass in his hand, thought it was whiskey. “I think one reason he didn’t drink was because he never wanted to be at less than full capacity. He didn’t make a point of not drinking, he didn’t preach about it, but he was upset by those who lost control. Connally thinks things should be proper, your desk, your conduct…everything should be proper, should be done proper. You should never make an ass of yourself…I know, some great men may have made asses of themselves, but you are never going to catch John Connal1y making an ass out of himself.”
During his term as governor, Connally developed a common ailment of an executive under pressure—a stomach ulcer. To help him curb his smoking, his personal secretary Maurine Ray kept his Pall Mall cigarettes in her desk. The governor would buzz the outer office and have her bring him one from time to time. Ms. Ray recalls that he made a “big production of his ulcer. Even if someone were in the office when it was time to take his liquid medicine, I would carry it on a tray. Then he changed the tablets and milk, and it seemed like every couple of hours I would take them to him. But he said the milk was too fattening, so he switched to skim milk.” When asked by one reporter if politics caused him to smoke, Connally replied, “Politics aggravates it. You know I can go out to the ranch and I won’t smoke six cigarettes all day long.”
Like many public figures, Connally prizes his privacy above all else. The public man is the man in the conservative business suit and the fashionable ties mixing and mingling with the best of the best. But the private man keeps his own counsel and does what he wants—exactly the way he wants to.
He accepts the speaking engagements he wants to, he retires to a life of privacy when he wants to, and he never waits in line. Meyers recalls how Connally loved to climb into bed at night with “a big dish of ice cream and read until midnight or one in the morning, then he’d get a late start.” Unlike his mentor, Lyndon Johnson, Connally has always liked to read fiction, and to discuss it. Two of his favorites during the 1972 presidential campaign were Fredderick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File.
Another facet of Connally’s character is his ability to expand his interests. His role in Nixon’s Cabinet lifted him from the provincial to the internationalist. He did his homework, learned his job, and served Nixon well. As Connally moved through foreign nations in his role as Secretary of the Treasury, his charismatic appeal increased. He was the Texas “wheeler dealer,” putting the polished men of affairs of foreign nations in their place.
Like many a poor boy who has rubbed elbows with the rich and gained some wealth himself, Connally takes pains to see that his homes reflect his status. In Connally’s case, this determination has been complemented by a genuine interest in antiques and art. Connally’s current possession in land and houses began taking shape during his tenure as governor, when he completed amassing his ranching spread in Wilson County and began construction on his ranch house.
Connally’s Sandhill and Picosa acreage are justifiably the most breathtaking spreads in the area. Sandhill covers 2400 acres; Picosa, the site of Connally’s ranch house, 1200 acres. Another ranch, the Four C, belonging to Connally’s children and named for them, encompasses another 1200 acres, and Connally owns another 500 acres nearby. In addition, Connally bought 250 acres of his family’s original homestead, with his brother Merrill purchasing the remainder. In 1965 Connally bought the Tortuga Ranch in Zavala and Dimmitt Counties: 14,270 acres purchased from Delhi Properties for about $300,000. Connally sold the Tortuga property in 1972.
The Connally ranch house at Picosa, designed by the late Austin architect John Linn Scott, took over a year to build and was completed in 1964, during Connally’s first term in the state house. The sprawling house sits atop a hill where Connally can survey almost every acre of his land. Constructed of native leuders stone, the two-story home contains approximately 7000 square feet of space and is a mixture of English, French Provincial, and informal Texas ranch styles. The cost of construction has been estimated at approximately $200,000 to $250,000, and Connally has commented that, “Frankly, we spent too much!”
Connally likes to spend time collecting antiques and personally supervising the houses that he builds. When the ranch house, with its eight bathrooms, large library and study, and 44-foot swimming pool, was under construction, Connally flew to Abilene with his architect to choose personally the limestone to be used in his home. He brought back black Brazilian granite flooring from one of his trips to South America for his living room, and he imported 11 handcarved doors, a staircase railing of antique brass and iron, and a marble dining room floor from an 18th-century London mansion. Two of the teakwood doors weighed 360 pounds each.
IN BASTROP THE CONNALLYS FOUND two silver kerosene carriage lamps from the historic Pease mansion in Austin. Crystal chandeliers and furniture were bought at auction, and a large Oriental chandelier was imported from New Orleans. Connally remarked that he and his wife, “hawked auctions. Ninety-five percent of the furniture was bought at auction.” Mrs. Connally remarked that her husband was often an overly enthusiastic collector. “I’m the only wife who’s had to say, ‘No, we don’t need that.'”
Connally changed his style somewhat when he moved to Houston and entered the legal firm of Vinson, Elkins, Searls, and Smith, now Vinson, Elkins, Searls, Connally & Smith. He bought a contemporary house in the exclusive Houston residential area of River Oaks, and began furnishing it in a melange of contemporary and antique.
Going “back home to the ranch” became rather commonplace after the Johnson years, and Connally began to look for newer, and more exotic, places to “take his ease.” On retiring as Nixon’s Secretary of the Treasury, he sighed that, “I’ve done my part. I’ve spent a lot of my mature life in public service and I’ve got a lot of satisfaction out of it. But now I’m tired and I want to do some other things.” He mentioned that he was contemplating buying a house in southern Europe, possibly in Italy, where he and Nellie could spent several months of each year. However, Connally finally chose Montego Bay, Jamaica for his vacation hacienda.
At a White House dinner, Dallas millionaire Pollard Simmons, a contributor to Nixon’s campaign coffers through Connally, invited Connally to visit his newest venture in Jamaica, the 3000-acre Tryall Golf Club, located 14 miles west of Montego Bay and near Round Hill, where Senator Edward Kennedy vacations. Connally fell in love with the lush and verdant scenery, and Simmons reportedly donated the highest hill as the site for the Connallys to build on. Connally exclaimed to Dallas Morning News correspondent Karen Elliott, who visited the Tryall house, “Isn’t this land magnificent?…Anything will grow here—bananas, coconut, mangos. The place has tremendous potential.” Part of the long-run potential is a multi-million dollar beef and dairy cattle operation, involving 11,000 acres of grazing land, a $5 million packing plant, and a quarantine station. Simmons, former Delaware lieutenant governor John Rollins, and Connally are cooperating in the venture.
Connally’s Jamaican house has caused much comment in newspaper circles and among the Washington press. Women’s Wear Daily and Time both list the price of Connally’s residence as $250,000, but Connally states that it cost under $100,000. The house is simply constructed with a latticed roof and ceiling fans. Only the Connally’s bedroom is air conditioned. Writers for W report that the 15 island laborers who constructed Connally’s sprawling house on the hill referred to the former governor as “Boss Man” and that other residents referred to the Connally house as “the winter White House.” The Connallys are decorating the house in a style which Nellie refers to as “Nellie and John hodgepodge.”
Connally’s admiring public follows him even to the golf course, with Tryall golf club pro Caleb Haye reporting that, “People come from all over the states and island and say, ‘I want to play on John Connally’s course.’ They all want to get a closer look at him and they stare but no one bothers him until after the game.” Haye also states that one golfer commented, “I guess he won’t have much time to come and play when he gets to be president.” And Connally undoubtedly puts on a good show for his ever-present audience. The man in the Homburg hat and the conservative business suit has changed his image to trim golf clothes and burnt orange and white patent leather golf shoes, the colors of the University of Texas football uniforms.
It’s a far cry from the Tryall Golf Course to the peanut fields of Wilson County, where Connally’s father John Bowden Connally Sr. and his wife Lela raised their brood of five children. The family was a close-knit one, where both work and play were shared, and the Christian virtues of hard work and sobriety were stressed. Connally once commented that, “Our small ranch was a living for a large family, and it took long, long hours of work by every member of the family to make ends meet. We plowed behind a mule, got our water from a hand-pump, studied by kerosene light, and learned to appreciate the nice things in life.”
Before the nice things in life came along, cotton prices hit rock bottom and John Connally Sr. found that tenant farming would not support his family of seven. He moved his family to San Antonio and formed a partnership with T. L. Perry from Corpus Christi to operate the independent Red Ball bus line between the two cities. The line, the forerunner of major companies such as Greyhound and Continental, later extended from Corpus Christi to Laredo and from Houston to Corpus. Connally Sr. operated the bus line for eight years, until the pressure from the major companies became too great that the two men were forced to sell out.
During the years that the family lived in San Antonio, both the Connallys dreamed of bringing their children back to Floresville to live. Connally Sr . coveted one particular piece of farm and ranch land, and he began saving his money to buy it. Early in the depression years, when land was cheap and many ranches were being turned back to the bank, the Connallys were able to buy the property. “When we left we were tenant farmers,” Connally’s brother Merrill states, “and when we returned we owned one of the choice pieces of property in the area.”
The purchase of the property did not endear the Connallys to the leadership of the community, however. Many of the larger ranches were creating giant spreads through buying up little farms and leasing them out. The so-called town “leaders” had already picked out a new owner for the land, and they were incensed that the Connallys acquired the property. Many of the townspeople still considered the Connallys “poor white trash,” remembers Merrill.
John Jr. got his first taste of politics by campaigning for his father, who had joined with several other members of the community to oust the “courthouse crowd” accused of dipping into the county till. John and his sister Carmen were taken to the neighboring community of Stockdale by their father and instructed to knock on doors and tell people to vote for their father for county clerk, on the reform ticket. Carmen remembers that it seemed to impress people that the candidate’s children were out working for him. Connally Sr. won the election. “There’s a family story,” Carmen recalls, “that John didn’t talk until he was about three years old. He would just grunt and point to things. But when he finally started talking, he could talk a blue streak.”
Connally put his “blue-streak” talking to good use even as far back as his grade school days. He began his interest in dramatics and declamation in Floresville and practiced with a coach in San Antonio. He won speech contests with his rendition of Patrick Henry’s “Speech Before the Virginia House of Delegates” and with Joaquin Miller’s “The Defense of the Alamo.” When he was president of the Curtain Club at the University of Texas, he was invited to deliver the commencement address at Harlandale, his San Antonio high school. His sister Carmen recalls that John’s speech was impressive, but quite long, “It just went on, and on, and on. I just wanted to say, ‘John, stop right there.'”
Not all young John’s public speaking experiences were pleasant ones. Brother Merrill recalls that after the family moved back to Floresville in 1932, John entered a speech contest against one of the city boys, a member of the so-called “elite” families of Floresville. According to Merrill, the “elite” ruled the roost: politics, government, and society.
With the whole community—students and parents as well—assembled in the school auditorium, the two boys gave their declamations. When the judges announced that the city boy had won over Johnnie Connally, the country boy, Merrill recalls that there was a “dead hush” in the auditorium. “Everyone was hesitant to believe that John had not won. Not because of who he was, but because he was by far the better of the two speakers. It was the same old story. The superintendent of schools was beholden to the district judge, who was part and parcel of the county unit. There was nothing we could do. It was a closed corporation.”
In his early years Connally was steeped in the Protestant ethic of work and get ahead and in his family’s concern with the land they farmed and struggled for. These traditional values, coupled with his sense of being an outsider in the community where he was born and his struggle for acceptance, have colored his sense of himself as a man. Connally seems determined that he will never be an outsider again.
At the same time Connally has often complained of being hemmed in by public office and responsibility that have brought him “inside”. He hated the built-in bureaucracy that was entrusted with form and tradition and “denied the opportunity to give play to any creative interests you might have.” His obsession with a bondless life could be a rebellion against his early years when, as his brother, Merrill, recalls, their parents instilled in the children the “byword of the time, that you must work hard—in fact to the point, really, to where I think there’s a sense of guilt on the part of some members of the family if you own a swimming pool. It’s a little bit hard for us to take the time out and enjoy some of what we call luxuries today without some twinge or some pangs of conscience.”
Connally, says his longtime political advisor, George Christian, “doesn’t want to be a drudge…he hunts, plays cards, cuts tree limbs—just other things. We used to pack up boxes of appointments when he was governor and go to the ranch for the weekend. Then we’d lug ’em back, never doing anything, I don’t know how many times. Last fall we had a thousand things to do on the Nixon campaign, but we just sat around watching the Olympics on television.”
When John Connally arrived at the University of Texas in 1933 his burning ambitions were to become a lawyer and to make a name for himself. He immediately entered into the active campus life, and joined the Wesley Players, the University Methodist Church’s dramatic group, eventually becoming its president. Later, his association with the campus drama organization, the Curtain Club, provided a creative outlet for Connally and brought him in contact with a brunette coed, Idanell Brill, who ended her aspirations to be an actress when she married John Connally.
The Curtain Club during the 1930s claimed many members who were later to make their marks on the world—Eli Wallach, Zachary Scott, and television personalities Allan Ludden and Walter Cronkite. A program picture of Connally from the Curtain Club’s production of Biography shows the set mouth and the arched eyebrow that later became his trademarks. The program noted that Connally’s favorite food was green grape pie and his pet hate was turnip greens. “John lives on a ranch and says he loves to ride horses. His ambition is to be critic-at-large of things-as-they-are.”
The university years were pivotal years for Connally. He climbed to the top of the ladder, being elected president of the Student Assembly and serving as Idanell’s escort when she was chosen Sweetheart of the University. He also developed an interesting habit which he still practices: Quit while you are ahead and resign when the job begins to bore you. He resigned as president of the Curtain Club when he filed to run for president of the Assembly. Then when he had successfully won the office and put several of his programs into effect, he resigned claiming that his grades were such that he needed to put more time into his studies. He also quit law school to go to work for a new Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1939 was going to Washington to serve his first term.
Connally first made the bigtime as a lawyer and lobbyist for the late Sid Richardson. Richardson, a self-made Texas multimillionaire, had his eye on Connally when the former governor was working as an organizer for Lyndon Johnson during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1940. Richardson invited Connally to confer with him about a possible position and Connally went to Fort Worth and talked with Richardson at the Fort Worth Club, where the “Bachelor Billionaire” kept a suite of rooms. Connally later recalled that, “We talked most of the night. He invited me to join his organization, and he said: ‘I can hire good lawyers and good engineers and good geologists, but it is hard to hire good common sense.’ At the end of our talk he told me: “I’ll pay you enough so Nellie and the kids won’t go hungry, and I’ll put you in the way to make some money.'”
Connally said, “When I went to work for Mr. Richardson, we agreed that we would just try it and see how it worked. If he didn’t like it, he could let me go in the morning. If I didn’t like it, I could leave in the afternoon.”
The association was mutually profitable to both men. Richardson got an able man to represent his interests in Washington, and Connally got his chance to make some money, through business deals and later as an executor for the Richardson estate. While in Richardson’s employ Connally failed to register as a Washington lobbyist, claiming that he had gained natural gas holdings in Texas through his association with Richardson and that he was in Washington representing his own interests and therefore was not required to register. However, in the wake of a 1956 bribery scandal, newspaper columnist Drew Pearson linked Connally to one of the lobbyists implicated in the scandal and branded Connally, “one of the most brazen lobbyists in Washington for the natural-gas bill.”
When the scandal broke, Connally, who was never himself implicated, left Washington and came back to the good life in Fort Worth with Richardson, Richardson’s nephew Perry Bass, the Eugene Lockes, and other members of the Dallas-Fort Worth society set. Connally joined two country clubs in Fort Worth, the Ridgelea and the Shady Oaks, and he enjoyed playing golf. His longtime Fort Worth friend, Joe Terry, another Richardson employee, remembers that John played golf for the Richardson bookkeepers when they challenged the firm’s engineering staff. Terry recalls that Connally played to win and was constantly challenging the other players on his team to compete. “John is a real competitor,” Terry states, “He doesn’t like to lose. When he plays golf, he plays to win.”
The transition from Richardson aide to Secretary of the Navy in the Kennedy Administration gave Connally a larger stage for his talents. But, true to his established pattern, he became bored with the job and after holding it less than a year began to cast his eye on something new, something which would really challenge him: the governorship of his home state.
The men who raised their eyebrows when Connally got off that plane in a Homburg hat not only elected him, they helped him form (or formed on his behalf) one of the most powerful political machines Texas has ever seen. Connally himself became increasingly bored with both machine and office as he went through his three terms, and much of his time was spent on other things. On day-to-day basis, the office of governor of Texas is one with much ceremony and little real power, although Connally got as much power out of it as there was. The machine slowly broke down without him, and is now scattered throughout Texas. The loyalty, however, is probably still there.
Many state legislators never even got the chance to know their governor. His aides and office staff formed an impenetrable wall that few dared to broach unless summoned. Texas’ first black congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, served with distinction in the state senate while Connally was governor. Jordan, who respects Connally politically, never had direct contact with him when he was governor or any “acknowledgement that I was here.” However, many legislators accepted Connally’s word as law, and freshman senator Jim Wade of Dallas commented in reaction to one of Connally’s policy speeches in 1965 that, “John Connally will be to Texas what Winston Churchill has been to England.”
Connally’s press notices across the nation picked up after the Kennedy assassination, and crowds turned out in huge numbers to greet the wounded governor wherever he appeared. In November, 1964, when Connally visited Cleveland, he was written up extensively in the Cleveland newspapers, and The Dallas Morning News noted that he was one of the most popular governors at the governors’ meeting. “Crowds congregate whenever he appears in the lobby of the headquarters hotel, the Sheraton-Cleveland. Autograph seekers are continually after him, and when he goes out on the street people come up to Connally just to shake his hand.”
Much of Connally’s appeal as Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon administration, in addition to his politcal ability, was his tremendous charm, his good looks, and his sense of presence. National columnist James J. Kilpatrick praised “…the explosive emergence of John Connally as secretary of the Treasury:
…John B. Connally seems to have something special.
Part of his appeal doubtless arises from the contrast he brings to his drab surroundings. The Nixon administration has its merits, but pizzazz it has not…
Now comes Connally, six-feet-two, silver man, with a handsome phiz and a he-man tan. He stands straight as the shaft of a six-iron. In private conversation—even in a press conference—he looks you straight in the eye, but it is not like it was with Lyndon. Mr. Johnson had the flinty eye of a faro dealer. Connally has the friendly gaze of a good coach or a parish priest. Want to buy a used car?
This guy could sell an old Toyota to Henry Ford.
…here in Credibility Gulch, he possesses one attribute more precious than nuggest of gold—the appearance of absolute candor…
Connally, at 54, has the look of eagles; and he is flying high to somewhere.
Connally’s sense of importance, his aristocratic manner, his upperclass values are not put-ons. In his speeches he projects the image of a down-home, next-door neighbor type with a sophisticated version of the “aw-shucks” speech. Connally talks as much about humility and about being humble as Nixon does about being “first”.
Since leaving his post as Secretary of the Treasury in yet one more riding-off-into-the-sunset performance, Connally has returned to semi-private life, switched to the Republican Party, and returned to the White House for an unsatisfactory stint as special consultant to a president beseiged by Watergate and economic problems. Connally’s own presidential star continues to twinkle, and the Gallup Poll confirms his popularity around the country as second only to Teddy Kennedy’s. It is not out of the question that this Texan with a strong personality and an almost 19th century view of formality and style could be the next president.
Perhaps the best insight into how much importance Connally places in appearance comes from a statement he made almost ten years ago to a judicial conference in Brownsville. “I, for one, am a great believer in robes,” Connally said. “You may disagree, but I think a robe sets a judge apart from the crowd, and gives him that extra prestige his office should demand. I think the wearing of robes on the bench should be a standard procedure, as should the rules of decorum in the courtroom.”
Appearances are important; formalities should be observed; there is a proper way to do things: A man of responsibility can not be too much apart of the crowd, but must be set apart. Those are the foundations for the style of John Connally. Combined with his political skills, his ability to do hard work, and his quick, retentive mind, his style has made him one of the most remarkable men in American politics. In 1974 he will be stumping for Republican Congressional candidates. In 1976, who knows? We may even see our judges wearing not only robes, but wigs as well.