Little John

by Nicholas Lemann

The Life of John Connally by James Reston, Jr. Harper & Row, $25.00.
IF TEXAS EVER picked someone to be its official embodiment, in the way that France periodically chooses a glamorous woman to represent Marianne, the spirit of the nation, it would be John Connally. Connally, who spent his childhood on a farm with no electricity or running water, personifies the great Texas shift from a poor rural society to a prosperous urban one; and when Texas went bust in the eighties. Connally did too. The government-business nexus (public-works projects, defense contracts, favorable treatment of the oil industry) was crucial to Texas’s rise, and also to Connally’s. Texas is essentially male, and Connally is the ideal Texas physical type, magnificently big, handsome, purposeful, and commanding, fully conversant with the folkways of both the boardroom and the cattle ranch.
In the national life Connally doesn’t look like nearly as major a figure. He grazes a category containing people like Estes Kefauver and Nelson Rockefeller, who were extremely powerful in their day and who might have become President, but who never got the chance to leave a real mark on the country. Connally’s story is a succession of almosts and might-have-beens; today he seems remarkable more as an aide than as a principal. At the age of twenty-two he went to work for Lyndon Johnson, and the two were closely connected for more than thirty years. In the early seventies Richard Nixon fell deeply under Connally’s spell, appointed him Secretary of the Treasury, and came to regard Connally as the best man to succeed him as President. James Reston, Jr., in his long biography of Connally, says that when Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President, in 1973, Connally was so sure he was going to get the job that he rented a hotel suite in Washington and began offering people jobs on his vice-presidential staff. Fora few months in 1979Connally looked like a real possibility to become the Republican presidential nominee in 1980.
In a way Connally’s stature in Texas and his limits as a national politician are related: his Tory ideology dominated Texas until very recently but is a sure loser in the presidential politics of both parties, and he has an imperious bearing that plays well in Texas, in ministerial Washington, and in corporate headquarters (the chief executives of forty-one of the 200 biggest corporations contributed to Connally’s 1980 presidential campaign) but practically nowhere else. Connally has always been the opposite of a populist. Reston dug up a letter that Connally wrote Johnson in 1944, on the subject of Johnson’s primary opponent for reelection to Congress, which says,
I wonder if the “peepul” know just how common he is. We can’t all be common or at least we shouldn’t so I better knock off discussing that “grate" man or I will expose myself as a worthy opposition to him for the common man’s vote. Cod, what a travesty is our democratic process!
Connally was a twenty-seven-yearold navy officer when he wrote that. The progression of his thinking over the years can be adduced from an unwittingly self-descriptive speech he gave in 1971 (quoted by Reston) about why Richard Nixon embodied die qualities that are most important in a President:
I’d want a man who was intelligent, and [Nixon] sure as hell is. I’d want a man who was studious, and he is. I’d want somebody who has guts, and he does—great courage. I’d like somebody who had a little bit of a mean streak in him—a little streak of ruthlessness, because no kind man ought to be president of the United States. A kind man can’t make the tough decisions that have to be made in the interest of this country.
Connally’s successes and failures have all come from the belief that there is a superior class of people (which most assuredly includes him) that ought to be allowed to run the world through the generous application of “toughness” and “leadership,” the twin elixirs that can solve any problem. You can see how appealing this view would be to people who have made the long climb to positions of power, and Connally himself—that chin! that hair! — is the perfect packaging for his message. It comes as no surprise to learn, toward the end of this book, that Connally once had in his possession an inscribed version of the Theodore Roosevelt quote about the superiority of the man in the arena amidst the dust and the sweat, which is the favorite epigram of every successful American man of action.
As Treasury Secretary, and as governor of Texas in the sixties, Connally demonstrated the good uses to which his abilities can be put: he did lead. But his regal bearing is not well suited to campaigning in general, and particularly in the age of “rerail" presidentialprimary politics. The mistakes he made in plotting his course stemmed from the incaution of a person who feels invulnerable to the ordinary pitfalls of life. He was openly contemptuous of his political opponents (including George Bush in 1980, which explains his invisibility in the current administration). Like the equally presidential-looking John Lindsay, he didn’t fully appreciate the risk inherent in a mid-life switch in political parties. He got indicted and then acquitted during Watergate on the charge that he accepted from a lobbyist $10,000 in cash, an insignificant sum to him, as a kind of personal tribute. His career as a real-estate developer, which ended in bankruptcy, was marked by an almost wild overconfidence and inattention to detail. In the opening anecdote of Robert Caro’s biography, Johnson, way back in the forties, refused a sweet oilbusiness arrangement because he realized that it might get in the way of his presidential ambitions much later; Connally, in contrast, spent nearly all of the fifties working as a political operative for Sid Richardson, the big independent oilman who founded the Bass Brothers fortune, and he has suffered the consequences that Johnson avoided.
THE CHALLENGE FOR a biographer of Connally’s is that this man, who from adolescence exuded a gale-force sense of importance, has not been, finally, all that important. Usually the biographer of a second-rank subject will use the life story as a way of describing a milieu that is interesting on its own, which in Connally’s case would be Texas in the fat middle of the century. Reston has chosen a different course: enriching the Connally story by focusing on the times when he participated in great events, though not as the central actor. He builds up Connally’s historical stature by arguing that he changed the course of more than one President’s life. Connally, rather than John F. Kennedy, Reston argues at great length, was Lee Harvey Oswald’s intended target on November 22, 1963. (In January of 1962, when he learned that his Marine Corps discharge had been downgraded because of his defection to the Soviet Union, Oswald wrote to Connally in the mistaken belief that Connally was still Secretary of the Navy, a job he held only in 1961. Connally wrote back a perfunctory letter promising to pass on to his successor Oswald’s request that his honorable discharge he restored. Reston claims, unconvincingly, that Oswald felt the downgraded discharge had ruined his life, and that he blamed Connally for it and decided to seek revenge.) Connally was the person who persuaded Johnson not to run for re-election in 1968. George Bush wouldn’t be President today if Connally hadn’t demanded in 1970 that Bush he given a job in the Nixon Administration, which, Reston says, led to Bush’s being made ambassador to the United Nations. Gerald Ford would probably have beaten Jimmy Carter in 1976 if he had picked Connally as his running mate. Reston has shown admirable honesty in not overselling Connally’s significance, but this has led him to expend an unusual amount of his authorial energy on other people.
The result is a consistently interesting, thoroughly researched biography in which the main subject is about the third or fourth most memorable character. The most memorable is Johnson, who whenever he appears simply blows Connally off the page with his enormous and never fully under control life-force. The Texas political world atop which Johnson sat was, by today’s standards, utterly wild and uncivilized, involving vote theft, fistfights, knife fights, lockouts, drunken swoons, and the copious dispersal of envelopes of cash. Reston gives us one scene in which Connally, in the middle of a crude, ranting performance by Johnson, has to go outside and throw up. Johnson, according to Reston, made a pass at Connally’s wife, Nellie, while Connally was serving in the Pacific theater. The impression that emerges from Reston’s account is that one of Connally’s many feelings about Johnson was an understandable distaste. Connally apparently believes that the main reason he didn’t become President is that, in his words, “I reminded everybody of Lyndon,” a view that Reston gives too much credence to.
Connally’s real problem was that he reminded everyone of Louis XIV. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but Connally’s decline as a national figure began almost precisely at the time Johnson died, in January of 1973; Reston quotes several telling Johnson aperyus about Connally’s flaws. “His problem is he likes those oak-paneled rooms too much,” Johnson said to one aide, and to another, “Connally doesn’t have . . . compassion. That’ll keep him from the top.” In Texas the most famous Johnson remark about Connally, which Reston doesn’t quote (perhaps it’s apocryphal), is “John doesn’t love the people.” Connally seems to have been the kind of protege who decides too soon that there isn’t anything more he can learn from his mentor, and so misses those crucial last few lessons.
Johnson is probably inherently more vivid than Connally, but also Connally’s inner life is less accessible than Johnson’s. Connally wouldn’t part with his papers until bankruptcy forced him to, and even then he got the LBJ Library, in Austin, to agree to keep them sealed for five years, a restriction that Reston says was aimed at him. Reston was granted only two interviews with Connally, and Connally’s inner circle of political aides seem to have stuck pretty close to the party line in their interviews with Reston. Anyway, Connally isn’t the talkaholic Johnson was, and so even his closest associates may not know much about his deep fears and desires. Reston usually has to come at Connally sideways, getting his information from a tangential but more forthcoming source. His most absorbing chapter is about Connally’s relationship with Jake Jacobsen, the milk lobbyist who says he gave him $10,000: Jacobsen spoke to Reston freely, and there is an extensive court record stemming from Connally’s indictment and trial.
WHAT RES TON HASN’T been able to do is present a real sense of the development of Connally’s character. In Caro’s biography of Johnson—the comparison is inescapable—Johnson is a little different at the end of each chapter from what he was at the beginning. In The Lone Star, Connally is like the little George Washington in the portrait, wearing a powdered wig and breeches, confessing to cutting down his father’s cherry tree—fully formed from the outset. To judge from what we know about him. Connally is a kind of living rebuke to Freud. The only explanations of him that work are social (he absorbed, and never grew out of, the values of the ranch) or physical (he became the person he was genetically destined to look like). Otherwise he is a mystery.
Most Texas politicians of Connally’s generation grew up in tough circumstances, and Connally’s upbringing was tougher than most. His parents’ firstborn child burned to death in a hearth fire. He picked cotton from the age of five, and he was able to afford to go to the University of Texas only because he got a seventeen-cent-an-hour parttime job with the National Youth Administration. And yet there is no hint that he believes the country is full of John Connallys who didn’t get the break they needed and stayed poor and frustrated. He was the most influential opponent of the Great Society in Johnson’s inner circle. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and after Martin Luther King was killed, he said, “He contributed much to the chaos and the strife and the confusion and the uncertainty of this country, but whatever his actions, he deserved not the fate of assassination.” Connally is not one of those conservatives who takes a tough line on the issues but forgives the imperfections of people he knows personally, either. Reston repeats a popular though not provably true anecdote that had Connally threatening to fire Paul Volcker as deputy secretary of the Treasury if Volcker didn’t start wearing nicer suits.
Whatever its source, Connally’s Ubermensch quality was reinforced by all his experience in politics and business up until the time that he struck out on his own as a presidential candidate and then as a businessman. The Texas where he rose was a one-party state without a real machine, so that pure force of will, rather than ideology or organization, was the main determinant of success. Economically the state was, like many other underdeveloped areas, a colony in which a few roughhewn natives had managed to get rich on their own. Connally threw in with the homegrown rich rather than the raj (which nurtured Texans like Bush and James Baker) and accepted their ethic of larger-than-lifeness as the key to business success.
When events appeared to swing dramatically in his favor—the country moved to the right politically, Texas boomed—he was curiously unable to capitalize on them. What Ronald Reagan understood or intuited about the political mood, Connally never grasped; he always thought the country liked big government as long as it was allied wdth business in the cause of promoting growth. As a businessman, he didn’t see that the economic world he knew—that of a high-level contactmaker and problem-solver for rhe super-rich—had nothing to do with being an entrepreneur. Actually, history was moving away from Connally just when he thought it was moving toward him. He is a natural oligarch, and America during his maturity has become more fragmented, less centrally run, less deferential—in sum, unfortunately for Connally, more democratic.