John Connally shared a fateful day and fragile past Texas
ALAN PEPPARD Staff Writer
Dictabelt recording of Oval Office phone call from President John F. Kennedy to John Connally on the morning after Connally was elected governor of
JFK: “What about
I lost the hell out of it. I lost it by 21,000 votes.” Dallas
JFK: “What did we lose
by, do you remember? In ’60?” Dallas
Connally: “Yes sir, you lost [by] over 60,000 votes.”
JFK: “60,000 votes? Hell, I got uh… you know, they’re up there talking to me about, remember having that
down there and all the
rest of that stuff. I don’t know why we do anything for Federal
Building .” Dallas
Connally: “I’m telling you, they just murdered all of us. But, we’re gonna change that now.”
Like reverse images of each other, John F. Kennedy and John Connally rode through the streets of
conversing little as they waved to the crowds and approached the climax of
their mutual drama. Dallas
Just three months apart in age and both blessed with movie-star good looks, the two possessed unquenchable ambition that had led them from open conflict to a correct, if not warm, alliance after Connally’s patron, Lyndon Johnson, joined the 1960 ticket as Kennedy’s running mate.
The bullets that passed through Kennedy and Connally in
did not consecrate the
fragile coalition in blood. Instead, they shattered it in such a way that the
pieces could never be reassembled. While Kennedy was canonized as a martyr,
Connally recovered from his massive wounds. Following the horror of Dealey
he traveled a serpentine path that eventually led him into the inner sanctum of
JFK’s great nemesis, Richard Nixon. Connally died in 1993. Dallas
Had Kennedy shared Nixon’s penchant for enemies lists or his brother Bobby Kennedy’s love of a grudge, John Connally would have been one of the first knights cast out of Camelot — banished after the 1960 Democratic Convention. Instead, the tall and charismatic Texan — a man Jackie Kennedy called too pretty to be handsome — was given one of the top jobs in the Pentagon and parlayed it right into the Texas Governor’s Mansion.
With a recorded Oval Office phone call from Kennedy to a just-elected Gov. Connally, we have the audiblesignature of JFK as the cool realist who quickly assesses that this foe-turned-friend may hold the keys to
’ 25 wavering
electoral votes in his 1964 re-election campaign. Texas
On the phone with Connally, the president was genial yet analytical as both men dissected the
win. Clearly proud, Connally boasted about the strength of his victory — “I
carried 205 out of 254 counties” — and Kennedy probed, particularly interested
in Texas and whether Connally
received the endorsements of its two newspapers. Dallas
The new governor’s surefooted election raised his standing with the Kennedy White House as a political force in
For the next year, Connally
would be the focus of an Oval Office lobbying campaign to bring JFK to Texas
and shore up uncertain support in a state that Lyndon Johnson could not
guarantee for Kennedy’s re-election bid in 1964. Texas
Back in 1960, even with the powerful LBJ on the ticket, JFK won
by a threadbare 46,233
votes. (In 1964, running without Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson carried
Texas by more than 700,000 votes.) Texas
In November 1962, however, LBJ was a gelded, depressed and irascible vice president. His protégé Connally was on the rise, influential with
oil money and popular
with moderates and Republicans, who were not naturally disposed to the
Northeastern Kennedy. Most of the boilerplate narrative that JFK came to Texas
to mend political fences was written after the assassination. Texas
Fate would place Kennedy and Connally so physically close together that minutes after the assassination, as doctors closed the bullet wound in the governor’s chest, they searched in vain for a wound that would explain the copious blood and soft tissue coating his head.
And then came the epiphany — the red ooze was not Connally’s, it was Kennedy’s.
In the eyes of history, John Connally is eternally linked to John F. Kennedy through the blood they spilled together in
In the summer of 1960, 43-year-old John Connally arrived in
for the Democratic National Convention at a
crossroads. As executive director of Lyndon Johnson’s campaign for president,
he was shackled to a vacillating candidate more preoccupied with the
consequences of losing the nomination than with the glories of winning it. Los
Sorrow without solace had visited Connally and his wife, Nellie, the previous summer when their eldest child, a 16-year-old daughter, Kathleen, known as K.K., died a mystifying death from a shotgun blast, just six weeks after eloping with her boyfriend, Bobby Hale. The young man’s explanation was that she was depressed and holding the gun to her head when he leaped for it and it went off.
A post-mortem revealed that K.K. was pregnant.
“Most of her head was blown off,” said the sheriff who called the shocked Connally to break the news.
The 18-year-old Hale was cleared following a less-than-satisfying investigation.
Connally had spent the previous decade as personal attorney for a man who, if
not the wealthiest in Fort Worth ,
was close — the rough-hewn, low-profile America
oilman Sid Richardson. Fort Worth
Through the 1950s, as Richardson’s smooth, articulate representative, Connally sat on the board of the New York Central Railroad, kept a suite at Washington, D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel and had his hand in all Richardson’s businesses, from California’s Del Mar racetrack to uranium mines in Colorado and Oregon.
But five months after K.K. Connally’s death, Sid Richardson was also dead, leaving Connally largely as a consigliere without portfolio.
By the summer of 1960, working again for his political mentor Lyndon Johnson, Connally had but one mission: to block the supremely organized, lavishly financed Kennedy campaign from seizing the presidential nomination.
Getting a late start, Johnson railed against Kennedy’s youth and inexperience and privately derided the younger man as “Sonny Boy,” but he gained no traction. The only hope lay in proving JFK was unfit for office.
Connally the slugger
The Johnson camp was aware of one of John F. Kennedy’s most closely guarded secrets: The dashing
senator, so famous for his vigor, suffered from Addison’s disease and might die
without constant maintenance doses of cortisone. Massachusetts
Even a small infection could turn fatal, as it almost had when Kennedy’s back was operated on in 1954 and the incision site refused to heal.
Word of the infection had quickly reached Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.
“I find it hard to believe, but they tell me young Kennedy is near death,” LBJ said to aide Horace Busby. “They tell me he’ll be dead in a matter of a few weeks.”
But despite receiving the last rites of the church, Kennedy recovered and returned to the Senate. By 1960, Johnson had learned that
had been the culprit. Connally believed that the time had come to use the
“Connally was a political heavyweight who was quick and deadly when it came to one-on-one slugging,” the late
recalled in his 1991 memoir. Texas
Sen. John Tower
A week before the opening of the convention, Connally and fellow Texan India Edwards, co-chairman of the Citizens for Johnson committee, called a news conference to announce Kennedy’s Addison’s disease.
Connally had planned to make the charge himself, but Edwards, a veteran of Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign and a woman 22 years Connally’s senior, held him back.
“My career was nearing an end whereas John was a young man just starting up,” she remembered in her memoir. “If I had known then that he would become a Democrat for Nixon in 1972 and later a Republican, I am sure I would not have done anything to further his career.”
So with Connally by her side, Edwards told the press she was disgusted with Kennedy’s “muscle flexing” and added that reputable doctors with a
hospital informed her that
Kennedy would be dead without regular medication. Boston
An indignant Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s campaign manager, replied that his brother did not have “an ailment described classically as Addison’s disease. Any statement to the contrary is malicious and false.”
Regardless of the veracity of the allegation, it did nothing to slow the Kennedy momentum. What it did do was enrage the Kennedy camp.
In his 1965 oral history for the JFK Library, JFK’s press secretary Pierre Salinger said, “The India Edwards-John Connally press conference [was] about as low a blow as you will ever want to find in American politics.”
hotel room the night before the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy told her
husband, “I just can’t stand Governor Connally.” Texas
Years later, Edwards would recall, “[People] felt that I had made it sound as if Kennedy had syphilis.”
LBJ as VP
More than a half-century later, it’s hard to see why the charge of Addison’s disease was more egregious than two months earlier when Kennedy partisan Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. labeled JFK’s then-challenger Hubert Humphrey a draft dodger during the crucial
primary. West Virginia
A fixture of Jackie and Jack Kennedy’s inner social circle, the dissolute, disappointed son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped to be named secretary of the Navy.
Of the many epithets applied to him, lazy was the most common.
“We had assigned a fellow named Bob Dunn to
for the full campaign,” Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler recalled in his oral
history for the JFK Library. “He had the responsibility to keep Franklin
off his butt and on the campaign trail.” Franklin
When Kennedy won the 1960 nomination on the first ballot in Los Angeles, he left his ninth-floor suite and came down the back stairs to Lyndon Johnson’s seventh-floor suite to offer him the vice presidency.
The shock to Kennedy’s liberal supporters and the conservative oil crowd backing Johnson came when the Senate majority leader, perhaps the second-most-powerful man in
accepted the powerless VP spot. Washington
“We had succeeded in finding a combination that the conservatives and the liberals equally disliked,” Connally later wrote.
“The reaction from some of our close friends was very painful,” Lady Bird Johnson would remember in a 1996 oral history interview for the LBJ Library. “I think John Connally got in his car with Nellie and started driving immediately back to
Johnson’s candidacy had been backed by oil-rich, communist-fearing Southerners whom Connally had scared for months with the specter of the liberal, Northeastern Kennedy. In the time that it took LBJ to accept the No. 2 slot, Connally had to tack and tell angry Johnson donors that their enemy wasn’t Kennedy, it was his Republican challenger, the conservative Vice President Richard Nixon.
And then he had to look cautiously over his shoulder at Kennedy’s inner circle, ruthless Boston Irish Catholic political operators who were still fuming that the Texans had publicly labeled their man as diseased.
Following JFK’s general election victory on
Nov. 8, 1960, FDR Jr.’s appointment
as secretary of the Navy was such a certainty that Kennedy had leaked it
to The New York Times, even though he promised his new secretary of
defense, Robert McNamara, complete autonomy to choose his people.
Roosevelt was very anxious to obtain
the position of secretary of the Navy,” McNamara said in his 1964 oral history
for the JFK Library. But McNamara absolutely refused, invoking Kennedy’s pledge
not to interfere in Pentagon appointments.
After his own talent search, McNamara phoned the new president in
to say that he had found the perfect candidate for secretary of the Navy — an
able Texan named John Connally. Palm Beach, Fla.
Politically naïve by his own admission, McNamara would later say, “I didn’t really realize [the] extent to which at one time there may have been considerable friction between him and President Kennedy.”
Amused rather than annoyed, JFK agreed to the appointment. “In a humorous vein, the full extent of which I didn’t realize until later, [he] said that he wanted me to discuss it with two of his associates who were at hand,” McNamara recalled.
Kennedy passed the phone to let McNamara break the news to his elated houseguests, Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, both political godfathers to Connally.
His 11 months as head of the Navy were followed by a successful run for governor and fresh attention from JFK, who began to lobby for a presidential visit to
“I had, frankly, been elected by the people that President Kennedy needed the most,” Connally would later testify to a congressional subcommittee, “by the moderates and the conservatives of the state.”
Connally was not eager to begin his term by throwing his arm around Jack Kennedy in front of a home crowd.
But Kennedy persisted. Pressure for a full swing through
climaxed after a June 1963 presidential motorcade in downtown Texas . Connally entered a suite at the Cortez Hotel
with the president, Lyndon Johnson and JFK’s tough-guy appointments secretary,
Kenny O’Donnell. El
“Well, Lyndon, are we ever going to get this trip to
worked out?” the president asked. Texas
“The governor is here, Mr. President, let’s find out,” LBJ answered.
“I knew at that point my string had run out,” Connally recalled. “I knew we were going to have a trip to
Resisting JFK’s idea for a series of fundraisers, Connally mapped out nonpartisan visits to
San Antonio , Houston and Fort
followed by one fundraiser in Dallas . Austin
Oct. 4, 1963,
the governor was welcomed
into the Oval Office, where he explained his plan to JFK. Sitting on a white
sofa in front of the fireplace, he looked at the president gently moving in his
rocking chair and suggested that the presence of Mrs. Kennedy would make the
trip look less political. Texas
“I agree with you,” the president said noncommittally. He would invite her once she returned from overseas, where she had gone to lift her spirits following the recent death of the couple’s 2-day-old son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.
On the same day that Connally outlined his plan in the Oval Office, Jackie Kennedy quietly boarded a 325-foot yacht in
accompanied by FDR Jr. and his wife, Suzanne. Athens
Welcoming the American first lady aboard was the yacht’s owner, Aristotle Onassis, the future husband of Jacqueline Kennedy.
A Boston Globe editorial promptly cried out, “Does this sort of behavior seem fitting for a woman in mourning?” Ohio Congressman Oliver Bolton publicly chastised both Mrs. Kennedy and Roosevelt for accepting the “lavish hospitality” of the shady shipping tycoon.
amid the bad publicity, Jacqueline Kennedy agreed to accompany her husband to Washington . Texas
A month before departing for Texas, both Kennedys escorted their friends, journalist Ben Bradlee and his wife, Tony, to the White House theater for a screening of the new James Bond film, From Russia With Love. As the foursome walked from the family quarters to the East Wing, JFK lamented the idea of Lyndon Johnson getting the Democratic presidential nomination in ’68.
“Well, then who?” the first lady asked.
According to Bradlee’s account, JFK shot back, “It was going to be
, until you and
Onassis fixed that.” Franklin
While the Lone Star hospitality was not nearly so lavish as life onboard the Onassis yacht, Nellie and John Connally had gone to some lengths to impress the Kennedys.
Before departing the Governor’s Mansion to join the Kennedys for the two-day tour, Nellie asked that the entry rug be cleaned before the Nov. 22 reception for the president, who would be flying in from
Jack Kennedy would not live to see the rug in the Governor’s Mansion. But it was not Nellie and John Connally’s last opportunity to entertain a president at home. On a later occasion, the couple readied their Picosa Ranch in
South Texas for a visit from a different
Planes of some of
most prominent citizens were packed alongside the private Connally runway, 800
yards away from the ranch house. Hovering above the scene was the presidential
helicopter, which scattered the reddish brown Santa Gertrudis cattle through
the tall coastal Texas Bermuda.
Among the guests looking skyward as the chopper descended were
oilman Bunker Hunt,
maverick Dallas financiers John
Murchison and Clint Murchison Jr., Dallas
publisher Amon Carter Jr. and Sid Richardson’s nephew and heir apparent, Perry
Bass. Fort Worth
Smiling as he ducked out the door of the big green aircraft was President Richard Nixon, accompanied by his wife, Pat.
“I’m sorry we scared your cattle,” Nixon said as he shook hands with Connally, the Democratic Party star who was about to jump ship to become not just a Republican but one of the closest advisers to the infamously insular Nixon.
Another face in that small ranch crowd was a
lawyer who could not have known that in less than two years, he would force
Nixon from office — future Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Houston
The moneyed, powerful guests discussed their common antipathy for Nixon’s upcoming election opponent, George McGovern. Amid the din, no one heard the bell that was already tolling for the Nixon presidency. His sullen minions were frantically trying to conceal the White House connection to a recent
A year after the ranch party, the first domino of scandal fell when Nixon’s pugnacious vice president, Spiro Agnew, was charged with accepting cash bribes and resigned his office. With Nixon’s presidency becoming more precarious each day, he had to appoint not just a new VP, but his possible successor.
The isolated president sat at
and examined his list of four names. No. 4 was his eventual choice, Gerald
Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat who had worked hand-in-hand with President Kennedy, warned that the Senate would not confirm someone who would be a strong 1976 GOP presidential nominee. That ruled out Nixon’s No. 3 choice, Ronald Reagan, and his No. 2, Nelson Rockefeller.
“With all of the problems I was having with Watergate, I could not become embroiled in a massive partisan slugging match over the selection of the new vice president,” Nixon later wrote.
After some quiet checking, Nixon learned to his dismay that Congress would also never confirm his No. 1 choice.
The name at the very top of Richard Nixon’s list was John Connally.
A note on sources
In reporting for this narrative, Alan Peppard consulted with several resource centers and published sources, including:
Presidential Recordings Program,
U.S. Elections Atlas
In History’s Shadow, John Connally and Mickey Herskowitz, 1993
Archive, The Dallas Morning News
The Lone Star: The Life of John Connally, James Reston Jr., 1989
Oral History Program, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Oral History Program, LBJ Presidential Library
Consequences, John G. Tower, 1991
Pulling No Punches, India Edwards, 1977
The Death of a President, William Manchester, 1967
History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Vol. 5: The McNamara Ascendancy, Alfred Goldberg, Steven L. Rearden, Doris M. Condit, 2006
Witness Testimony, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Report 1979
Nemesis, Peter Evans, 2004
Conversations with Kennedy, Benjamin C. Bradlee, 1975
The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, 1978