Obituary: John Connally
Thursday 17 June 1993
'BIG JOHN' Connally's public life was as vivid, expansive and explosive as his home state of Texas. From a modest background he became governor of the state, served two presidents, was wounded in the limousine in Dallas when John Kennedy was assassinated, was the subject of an industry kickback scandal, gambled in real estate and made and lost a fortune. In one of the more spectacular multi- million-dollar bankruptices that followed the Texas bust of the late Eighties, Connally was forced to sell a treasure-chest of personal property, including his silver-inlaid saddle.
He looked and behaved like a Texan, but with some of the rough edges smoothed over. They called him a suave Lyndon Johnson, who was his mentor. He was a political opportunist, without compassion. He urged President Nixon to consider the use of nuclear weapons to win the Vietnam war. Johnson reportedly once said of Connally's political campaign tactics that he 'could leave more dead bodies in the field with less remorse than any politician I ever knew'.
Tall, handsome, personable, articulate and bursting with energy, he galloped over the rough terrain of Texas state politics, changing horses on the run when it suited him. He was Secretary of the Navy in the Kennedy administration and Secretary of the Treasury under Richard Nixon.
His life began on a farm. His father had been a cowboy, barber and a grocer and then a tenant dairy farmer. He went to local schools and the University of Texas, where he gained a law degree. He served in the navy during the Second World War, winning the Bronze Star for valour in the Pacific.
After the war he switched back and forth from Democratic to Republican party politics, helping Lyndon Johnson win his Senate seat, Eisenhower win the presidency, and then back to Johnson when he ran as Kennedy's vice-president. Kennedy made him navy secretary, and in 1961 a letter landed on his desk from a man called Lee Harvey Oswald complaining about his dishonourable discharge from the marines. Connally thought the shots fired at the limousine that day in Dallas in 1963 were meant for him.
Always on the conservative wing of the Democratic party, Connally caught Nixon's eye and was made Treasury Secretary in 1971. A long- time friend of big business, Connally was largely responsible for the Federal guarantee of some dollars 250m in loans to the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, then suffering from military budget cutbacks. He was also a central figure in the end of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange-rate system and the devaluation of the dollar.
Three months after Johnson's death in 1973, Connally formally left the Democrats, saying the Republican party was 'his true philosophical home' because 'it best expressed the broad view of most Americans, whatever their party affiliation'. President Nixon appointed him as a White House adviser when the troubles of Watergate got too much for him, but Connally resigned when Nixon appointed Gerald Ford his vice-president to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew. A year later Connally ran into a storm of his own. He was accused of taking dollars 10,000 from the American milk producers association after persuading Nixon to back a controversial increase in price supports for dairy farmers. He was exonerated by a federal jury in 1975.
He lost a bid against Ronald Reagan for control of the Republican party and in 1980 ran for president himself, spending almost dollars 12m to gain one single delegate at the Republican convention. In 1988 he declared bankruptcy. He was personally dollars 93m in debt after disastrous gambles in Texas oil and real estate. The auction of his property, including a 2,600-acre ranch and horses, left him with his ranch house and a mere 200 acres that he was allowed to keep, according to Texas law, to get started again. No one was surprised that a year later he was back in business.
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