The Nixons and Connallys at the Connally ranch in August 1972.
This Tuesday marks the anniversary of Richard Nixon’s appointment of John Connally as the United States’ sixty-first Secretary of the Treasury and the early stages of what, at least at the time and to outside observers, seemed to be an unusual personal and political friendship. The son of a dairy farmer and born near San Antonio, Connally broke into politics as an aide to Congressman Lyndon Johnson in 1939 and worked for the 1960 Johnson Presidential campaign. When John’s wife Nellie visited the Nixon Library in 2003, she recounted the stressful encounter with the 1960 Kennedy campaign and her firsthand experience with Johnson’s quick temper by describing the time the future President threw a phone book at her over an error on the campaign trail. As Governor of Texas, Connally is most commonly remembered for riding in John F. Kennedy’s fateful Dallas motorcade and being struck by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet in the chest, wrist, and thigh. Mrs. Connally believed the injury led to the progressive scarring of her husband’s lung and, ultimately, contributed to his death by pulmonary fibrosis in 1993.
During the Johnson administration, Connally became a critic of the President’s reliance on Kennedy’s “the best and the brightest” and stated in an interview, “I said, ‘These are all Kennedy people. A lot of them are good people, but they are Kennedy people. They were committed to him and not to you.’ I said, ‘I don’t know that these people will be disloyal, but they obviously can’t have the same feeling for you that they had for Jack Kennedy. You’re entitled, as President of the United States, to have your own Cabinet, people that you know, whom you trust.” Ultimately, the holdovers from the Kennedy administration became the architects of the disastrous “graduated response” Vietnam policy, which eroded popular support for the war, divided the nation, and made it almost impossible for Richard Nixon to achieve a settlement in 1973. In 1968, “the best and the brightest” abandoned Johnson and primarily supported the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy.
The initial political forces that brought Nixon and Connally together appear to be even more inexplicable. In a 2007 oral history, Roy Ash–who worked with Connally on the Ash commission–claimed he introduced Nixon to Connally at a dinner and blamed himself for inadvertently turning Connally into a Republican and costing him a chance at the Presidency. As Nixon stated in his 1971 State of the Union address, Connally’s christening into the administration as the new Secretary of the Treasury occurred during an envisioned bi-partisan “New American Revolution” focused on reforming welfare, combating unemployment and inflation, protecting the environment, improving healthcare, instituting revenue sharing, and reorganizing the federal government. Very quickly, Connally became one of Nixon’s closest confidants and advised the President on matters ranging from foreign policy, the Vietnam War, economic policy, welfare reform, and the military budget. Privately, Nixon flirted with the idea of removing Spiro Agnew from the 1972 ticket and replacing him with Connally to form a new conservative party consisting of conservatives and moderates aligned against the left-wing of the Democratic Party.
In addition to Nixon’s domestic and foreign triumphs of 1972, the rise of George McGovern and the politics of the New Left contributed to Connally’s and other Democrats’ decision to support Nixon. By revising the nominating procedure through the McGovern-Fraser commission, McGovern dismantled the influence of and alienated party-insiders by helping pave the way for his own nomination. His waffling positions, disorganized campaign, and determination to destroy the bi-partisan Cold War consensus by anointing himself the leader of the anti-war movement simply put the nail in the coffin. By August, Connally left the administration to set up the Democrats for Nixon Committee and actively campaigned for Nixon’s reelection. In a televised conference, he stated “I frankly find myself much more in accord with President Nixon’s views, his objectives, (and) his accomplishments than I do with the articulated views of Mr., Senator McGovern. Those views I find in many cases all too isolationists in character and too radical in character.”
During the embattled Watergate years of the second term and after Agnew’s resignation, Nixon again sought to nominate Connally as his Vice-President. Alexander Haig, now Nixon’s chief of staff, recalled in an oral history interview:
Nixon had already committed to John Connally to have him on the ticket for the second term. After Agnew left, Nixon said to John that he would have to come to Washington. John was a thoroughbred—one of the most remarkable people I have known in politics. He wanted the job, but when we had to call and tell him no, he said: “we have to do what is right for the President.” He was a high roller; a big-stakes kind of guy in the school of Lyndon Johnson. I admired him immensely but that fact was that Ford could be confirmed.
During the anti-Nixon fervor of Watergate, a federal investigation indicted Connally for allegedly accepting improper gratuity to influence milk pricing; a charge he was ultimately acquitted for. Even after Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Connally and Nixon remained in close contact. When Connally ran for the Republican nomination in 1980, Nixon remained a strong advocate and an informal advisor. If he could not have Connally as his Vice-President in 1972 or 1973, perhaps he could finally be his successor in 1980? A well-financed Connally, however, proved incapable of matching Ronald Reagan’s stunning campaign and the alleged tactics of Reagan’s rising GOP operative, Lee Atwater.
In June of 1993, as Mrs. Nixon’s health regressed, Connally’s progressively scarring lung contributed to his death. His wife believed the bullet that killed Kennedy claimed its final victim. In a moving tribute to John, Nixon wrote the following letter to Mrs. Connally and noted: “Pat is not well. But, like John, she’s putting up a helluva fight:”
In 2004, the Nixon Library was fortunate enough to entertain Mrs. Connally as she promoted her memoir, From Love Field: Our Final hours with John F. Kennedy, and this blogger eagerly embraced the opportunity to shake her hand and discuss history.