Former Texas governor John Bowden Connally, Jr. (1917-1993), political adviser and confidant to both Democratic and Republican presidents and a candidate for the presidency in 1980, helped shape American economic policy as secretary of the treasury during the Richard M. Nixon administration.
John B. Connally, Jr., one of seven children, was born in Floresville, Texas, on February 27, 1917, to John Bowden Connally, a tenant farmer, and Lela (Wright) Connally. After attending public schools in San Antonio and Floresville he entered the University of Texas where he earned a law degree in 1941. Connally's introduction to politics occurred in 1937 when Lyndon B. Johnson, a former administrator of the Texas division of the National Youth Administration entered the race for the 10th District congressional seat vacated by the death of Walter Buchanan. Connally, then a University of Texas undergraduate and former student body president, volunteered for Johnson's successful campaign. When Congressman Johnson was elected to a full term in 1938 he hired Connally as his administrative assistant, thus beginning a 30-year political association. Connally remained in Washington one year and then returned to Austin to complete his law degree. In 1940 he married Idanell Brill, a University of Texas student.
Immediately upon graduating from law school Connally entered the U.S. Navy. While serving in the Office of Naval Operations he worked on General Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff and helped plan the allied invasion of Italy in 1943. Later Connally won a Bronze Star for bravery while serving as a fighter-plane director aboard the aircraft carrier USS Essex. Connally returned to civilian life in 1946 and founded radio station KVET in Austin. Two years later he managed Lyndon Johnson's successful Senate campaign and again served as Johnson's administrative assistant for one year before returning to Texas.
In 1952 Connally became the attorney for oil multimillionaire Sid W. Richardson. Connally's frequent jumps between government and business continued throughout his career and established his image as a "wheeler-dealer" willing, according to his critics, to parlay his position for private profit. Connally, however, argued that financially successful public servants were less subject to compromise and thus could best act in the public interest.
Connally skillfully manipulated his political and business ties. While serving as a Washington lobbyist for the oil and national gas industry he remained active in Texas politics and helped Lyndon Johnson gain control over the state Democratic Party in 1956. In 1960 he managed Johnson's unsuccessful presidential campaign and later helped Johnson obtain the vice-presidential nomination at the Democratic convention. When the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was elected in 1960 Vice-President Johnson helped obtain Connally's 1961 appointment as secretary of the Navy. Connally held the Navy post 11 months before resigning to successfully run for governor of Texas, his only elective office.
Ten months after becoming governor John Connally was abruptly thrust into the national prominence. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while being driven through Dallas, Texas. Governor Connally, also in the presidential limousine, was wounded. While Connally and Kennedy differed on most issues the two men were linked in the public's mind and the notoriety aided the governor in his 1964 and 1966 reelection campaigns.
Connally was a politically conservative governor who promoted economic growth and aggressively expanded the Texas University system. He opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the anti-poverty campaign, Medicare, federal aid to education, and most of the other "Great Society" programs created by President Lyndon Johnson, his former boss and mentor. Johnson frequently remarked that his former congressional aide had no compassion for the poor despite Connally's own childhood poverty. Connally fully supported American involvement in Vietnam and while heading the Texas delegation to the 1968 Democratic convention he pushed through a pro-war plank despite determined liberal opposition and anti-war demonstrations outside the convention hall. However, Connally gave lukewarm support to Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.
At the end of his third term as governor Connally moved to Houston to become a senior partner in Vinson and Elkins, one of the largest law firms in the nation. However, in December 1970 President Richard Nixon in a surprise move appointed Connally secretary of the treasury. When skeptical reporters asked his qualifications for a post normally held by a banker, Connally quipped, "I can add." Connally's candor and wit won praise in Washington, and he quickly emerged as the principal administration spokesman for economic policy. But his abrasive style offended European and Japanese trade negotiators, while his unconditional endorsement of the government bailout of the nearly bankrupt Lockheed Corporation sparked opposition from Defense Secretary David Packard and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur Burns. Connally's hard bargaining tactics eventually alienated Secretary of State William Rogers and national security adviser Henry Kissinger. As opposition in the Nixon administration grew, Connally was ultimately forced to resign in June 1972.
Despite his cabinet experience Connally remained a loyal Nixon supporter who in August 1972 organized the "Democrats for Nixon" committee. Connally soon became one of the president's closest political advisers, and on May 1, 1973, he joined the Republican Party. Connally's close association with the White House prompted allegations of his involvement in the Watergate scandals. In March 1973 a House subcommittee charged he had interfered with a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. Three months later White House counsel John Dean testified that Connally had participated in top level discussions on stopping the Watergate probe. On July 28, 1974, a federal grand jury indicted Connally for taking an illegal gratuity, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and perjury in connection with his alleged acceptance of $10,000 from the Associated Milk Producers, a dairy lobby, in 1971. Connally pleaded not guilty, and in April 1975 he was acquitted.
With the milk scandal trial four years past, Connally in 1979 began his quest for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. Declaring "business is the lifeblood of our country, the source of our greatness," he called for corporate tax cuts, accelerated depreciation, less governmental regulation, and unlimited nuclear power development while promising to slash wasteful federal social programs and "parasitic, burgeoning government bureaucracy." Connally entered the early 1980 presidential primaries confident of victory. But after three grueling months of campaigning and spending $12 million, far more than his political opponents, he had only one delegate to show for his efforts. Connally then staked his political future on a decisive win over the GOP front-runner, former California governor Ronald Reagan, in the March 8 South Carolina primary. When Reagan won the primary, 63-year-old John Connally withdrew from the race and retired from politics.
No longer a political figure, Connally joined the oil industry. With the oil shortage of the early 1980s looming over the United States, Connally and a few business partners started Chapman Energy in 1981. For the next few years, Connally and his partners developed shopping centers, office buildings, other businesses, and real estate ventures. By 1983, Chapman Energy was worth an estimated $300 million. But disaster struck as the price of oil took a nose-dive, under $10 per barrel, in the mid-1980s. Chapman Energy was forced to liquidate all of its assets and ownings, and on July 31, 1987, Connally filed for personal bankruptcy.
Connally managed to recover from this setback, and appeared in several commercials for University Savings, promoting financial prudence. He was made a member on the board of pipeline operator at Coastal Corporation in 1988, and continued to live comfortably with his wife, Nellie, in their ranch house in Floresville. Connally succumbed to his long-term battle with pulmonary fibrosis, a condition caused by the gunshot wounds he received almost 30 years earlier, on June 15, 1993. He was 76.
Further Reading on John Bowden Connally Jr
The best biographies of Connally are Charles Ashman, Connally: The Adventures of Big Bad John (1979) and A. F. Crawford and J. Keever, John B. Connally: Portrait in Power (1973). Other information on Connally can be found in Ronnie Dugger, The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson (1982) and Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1983). For a discussion of Connally's years as governor of Texas see Robert Sobel and John Raimo, editors, Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978 (1978).