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


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