Connally loomed large, but so did his baggage ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 17, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- John B. Connally, who died in Texas the other day at 76, was one of the most vivid and compelling, if controversial, figures in American politics a generation ago.

He was a larger-than-life political leader whose brains, drive and charm seemed to equip him ideally for a presidential candidacy. Ironically, political historians will remember him most for his one spectacular failure, his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. Disdaining public financing, Connally raised some $11 million from private contributors -- but still captured only one delegate to the national convention that nominated Ronald Reagan.

Those who knew Big John, as his friends always called him, will remember instead the force of his personality, the luminosity of his charm and the confident ability in showing how to get things done.

He came to Washington originally as the protege of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose campaign for the Senate he had managed, then served briefly as secretary of the Navy, before returning to Texas to win three two-year terms as governor -- the last of which he was serving when he was wounded by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding through Dallas with President John F. Kennedy Nov. 22, 1963.

But Connally was always too conservative for the Democratic Party of that time, so it was no great surprise when he accepted President Nixon's designation as secretary of the Treasury in 1970. Some Republicans were taken aback at his lack of conventional credentials for the assignment -- "Can he add?" asked Francis Sargent, the waggish governor of Massachusetts -- but Nixon was a great admirer. Indeed, some Nixon intimates said the then-president was so awed by Connally he would have liked to put him on his ticket for president in 1972. Connally had all the easy personal grace that was so conspicuously missing in Nixon.

Connally organized and led "Democrats for Nixon" in 1972 but did not change parties until 1973, after the death of his mentor Johnson, a decision that angered and distressed many of his longtime Democratic associates in Texas. Robert Strauss, one of Connally's closest friends since their days together at the University of Texas, talked about resigning as Democratic national chairman because he feared he would be seen as

compromised. Others were harsh. If Connally had been at the Alamo, longtime Johnson aide Liz Carpenter said, he would have organized "Texans for Santa Ana."

Although Connally never hid his intentions, he was foreclosed from any immediate presidential ambitions when Gerald Ford assumed the presidency after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon from office in 1974. When Ford was defeated in 1976, the ebullient Texan began quickly to plan for 1980.

But Connally carried too much heavy political baggage to succeed. He was seen widely as another wheeler-dealer in the Johnson mold, and his indictment on charges of taking a $10,000 bribe from dairy interests seemed to confirm that image. Connally won acquittal in a spectacular trial in 1975 and liked to remind voters he was the only candidate whose honesty had been certified by a jury of his peers. But the image lingered.

Indeed, Connally's experience was seen at the time as the confirmation of a political rule written by the late Lee Atwater, then a young Republican operative from South Carolina. That rule held that no candidate could succeed if his "negatives" in opinion polls were above 35 percent unless his "positives" were at least 20 points higher. Polls taken across the country that winter showed Connally with negatives averaging 37 percent, positives at 26 percent.

Connally was a remarkably persistent candidate nonetheless, on one occasion resuming a speech to a political audience after one of his listeners had fallen dead with a heart attack and been carried out.

But the Texan ran far out of the money in the Iowa precinct caucuses and again in the New Hampshire primary, and his candidacy effectively ended when he lost a primary in South Carolina to Reagan despite a massive expenditure of both money and personnel. He never became a presidential nominee but, for a time, John Connally took up a lot of space in American politics.

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