Connally awed Nixon, as Haldeman diaries tell

ON POLITICS

May 20, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Nothing comes through more clearly in the && diaries of former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman than the respect approaching awe President Richard Nixon felt for his secretary of treasury, John B. Connally of Texas.

Beyond claiming that Nixon wanted to push his vice president, Spiro Agnew, out of office in 1971 and replace him with Connally, the diaries report that Nixon had other, bold ideas about making the smooth-talking, jut-jawed Texan his successor in the presidency.

Getting Agnew to resign so that Nixon could select Connally, then a Democrat, under the new 25th Amendment providing for filling a vice presidential vacancy would only have positioned Connally to succeed Nixon in the event of death, disability or resignation. And the latter reason was not even dreamed of in 1971, more than a year before the Watergate break-in and cover-up that eventually forced Nixon from office.

After the Connally-for-Agnew scheme had fallen through and Connally had resigned his Cabinet post in June 1972 over a dispute on Treasury staff appointments, there was serious talk, according to Haldeman, about creating a third party, or changing the name of the GOP to something like the Republican Independent Party, to elect Connally president in 1976.

These conversations, the diaries say, took place less than a month after Nixon's re-election in 1972 and before the Watergate case began to unravel. On Dec. 1, 1972, as Nixon was deeply involved in a sweeping Cabinet and staff shake-up for his second term, Haldeman wrote of a discussion with Nixon about Connally: "The point is he is the only one that any of us would want to see succeed the P [president]. He's got to run as a Republican and he's got to make the move now."

Haldeman went on: "The 'Connally for President' discussion led to a general discussion of forming a new party. E [White House aide John Ehrlichman] raising the idea that this is our only chance, in the next 60 days or so, and that we should give some thought to it on the basis that you use the Republican Party as a base, but add to it the New Majority [of Nixon voters]. Use Connally as the focal point candidate, but that the P has to take the lead.

"The P was intrigued with this as a possibility, recognizing that you can never really go with the P's party into a majority and that the only hope probably is to do a new party. The question is whether it can be done and whether we really want to make the effort."

The subject came up again in a Haldeman-Connally conversation, according to the diary entry for Dec. 5: "Had a long session with Connally and the whole question of the new party and Connally's going for the presidency, and it's clear that Connally is ready to run, but not totally convinced that we can do it by building a new party. The third-party route just isn't workable, and there's no point in trying it.

"He [Connally] does feel that we could do something in the way of re-establishing the Republican Party in a different way, with a new name, such as the Republican Independent Party. It would clearly put a new cast on it, but not lose the base that we have now, which Connally feels is indispensable. He debated whether he would change parties, and came to no conclusion on that. Connally's feeling, however, is that he shouldn't change things when they are going well . . ."

Connally did indeed switch parties and become a Republican in May 1973, by which time Watergate was making the Nixon connection far from politically beneficial to him. It was not until 1979 that Connally became a presidential candidate, running against Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1980. Shunning federal campaign funds, he raised a reported $11 million on his own and garnered one convention delegate in being badly beaten by Reagan.

The Haldeman diaries underscore how, even during the dark Watergate days, Nixon relied on Connally for political advice. In the end, however, Nixon could not deliver the White House to him -- or even the vice presidency, choosing Gerald Ford upon Agnew's resignation because, reportedly, Ford could be most easily confirmed by Congress.

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