John Connally had it all and did so little

October 26, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

John Connally had it all. He was "unfairly handsome," an acquaintance once said, and notoriously vain. He was also a tremendously gifted politician.

Like many who reached the top of the greasy pole of American politics, he got his first taste of success on campus, at the University of Texas. "There were ten thousand students," Connally says in this posthumously published autobiography, "and I honestly think I could have called at least half of them by their first, last, or both names." He was elected student body president and married the campus beauty queen.

Women may have swooned, but Big John was a man's man, whether that man was his mentor, Lyndon Johnson; or Richard Nixon, who mused about anointing Connally as his successor; or America's corporate leaders, who opened their wallets wide when Connally finally did run, in 1980, for the Republican nomination. Even his failures were on a grand scale. He spent $12 million and won just one national convention delegate, a record for futility in presidential campaigning that may never be equaled.

For nearly three decades, John Connally lived in the public eye, a swaggering Texas political myth who sandwiched three terms as governor of the Lone Star State between stints in the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Nixon. He was "the governor," said Gov. Ann Richards, when Connally died last summer at age 76.

He was also the crassest of opportunists, someone who wore the wheeler-dealer label without apology. In the 1970s, he stood trial on federal bribery charges and was acquitted. In the 1980s, he became a real estate speculator and went bankrupt. In 1990, he ignored the objections of President George Bush (whom he detested) and made a controversial trip to Iraq to bargain with Saddam Hussein for the release of U.S. hostages.

It was Connally's fate to be linked forever to the most disputed crime in 20th-century American history, the murder of John F. Kennedy. As governor of Texas, he was riding in the presidential limousine that morning and was wounded by one of the assassin's bullets. "I cannot say that I think about the assassination every day," Connally admits, "but I don't miss by much."

After his death in June, there were demands that Connally's remains be examined for bullet fragments, on the notion that they could shed new light on the assassination. Connally himself gave no real credence to those who have kept a cottage industry alive for three decades by playing on the public's weakness for conspiracy theories.

But he wasn't above cashing in on the event. Publication of this book, ably co-authored by Mickey Herskowitz, a Houston writer who has also collaborated with Dan Rather and other celebrities on their life stories, coincides with next month's 30th anniversary outpouring of TV shows, books, newspaper and magazine articles and who knows what else surrounding the assassination.

In the words of Sam Rayburn, the legendary speaker of the House from Texas, John Connally "had more natural ability than any man of his age that he'd ever known." His life story, at least as told in the pages of his autobiography, is one of enormous potential unfulfilled. In his own book, Connally, supposedly a man of considerable intelligence and shrewd judgment, comes across as shallow and one-dimensional.

He lets readers in on a "secret" he has kept from the public for all these years: "That John Connally changed forever on November 22, 1963." But how he did isn't really clear.

He says he probably would have run for president in 1968, had Kennedy lived, or sought a fourth or fifth term as governor, "perhaps for no other reason than to set a record." Such a goal seems "ignoble," he is quick to add, "but there is a time in your life when records matter."

But superficial score-keeping (or -settling) permeates the book. He boasts, at one point, that he has never had a moving violation in a lifetime of driving. What passes for reflective thinking is a banal wish to do college all over again, in order to devote himself to what he had missed: the acquisition of knowledge.

The title, "In History's Shadow," seems particularly apt. There is little in this book to show that Mr. Connally made a deep imprint on history, in spite of the many years he spent close to power. Instead, a reader is left with the sour afterthought that there was much less to John Connally than met the eye.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "In History's Shadow: An American Odyssey

Author: John Connally with Mickey Herskowitz

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 386 pages, $24.95

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