John Connally strides across the room to greet a visitor, his towering shape blotting out the view of Houston far below. His hand reaches out in welcome. The smile is wide and sure. The eye gleam with challenge and confidence. He leads the way to a chair, then places himself behind his massive antique wood desk and sinks comfortably into his leather chair. He grins.
Prisidential. That's the word that comes to mind. Strong. Forceful. Dynamic. A leader. Those too will do. His mood: "Peaceful as it can be." He likes the sound of the word. "Peaceful," he says, rolling it around his tongue again with pleasure.
His eyebrows come together in a dramatic frown. "'Course," he adds, "I don't like to lose.
"I am frustrated, I guess, more than anything," says John Connally, former presidential candidate. "I've always been a little bullheaded. I made up my mind if I was going to give up freedom and my personal life I was going to give up things I thought important. It was a reflection of the political courage I had." He pauses for a moment and lowers his eyelids. "Though some may say it was politically folly. But when there is a reward for political cowardice, then that will be sowing the seeds of destruction in this country."
It is Monday. The day after John Connally has withdrawn his candidacy for the job of president of the United States. He is spending the day statesmanlike, receiving calls from constituents and condolences from well-wishers, and analyzing the reasons for his political demise.
"If Kennedy was going to be the nominee of the democrats, they had to have the best and toughest campaigner on the Republican side, he says. "My political fortunes improved as people came to believe Kennedy was going to be the nominee." But, after the hostage taking, he says, when Kennedy was down, "they didn't need the best against Carter. They felt anybody could beat Carter. So they wanted Ronald Reagan. He is the ideological favorite of the party." No Blood
If Monday after noon with John Connally had a touch of seminar, then Sunday afternoon was reminiscent of a bullfight. The big brave bull charging around the ring in frustration, the colorful banderillas hanging from his wounded body.
The red flag was waving, the matador taunting -- the bull paused, then charged, almost deliberately toward the matador's blade.
The first thrust did it. Clean, cut no blood -- beautiful, dignified.The bull had fought a good fight, and most important, he had cheated the matadors of the press out of their moment of glory.
Connally seemed a bit shaken at first, as he took the microphone, There was a slight redness around his eyes and he was perspiring. His wife Nellie stood close to him, her arm wrapped tightly around his waist. She glanced quickly, protective around the room.
There were nearly 500 "home folk and dear friends" and reporters gathered at the hastily called press conference Sunday afternoon in Columbia, S.C., to hear what John Connally had to say. Or, as one reporter put it: s"For the kill."
John Connally began slowly. "Nellie and I are delighted to be back here. . . since I declared my candidacy a year ago we've traveled the country, seen the people. . . . We knew the odds were overwhelmingly against us . . . formidable task ahead of us . . . we knew at the outset -- I said at the outset as you recall -- the only hope we had in overtaking him [Reagan] was convincing people. . . . I had some capacity and experience he didn't have."
Nellie tried to sit down. He instinctively grabbed her arm and pulled her back. "No, don't go," he whispered. She tightened her arm around him.
He talked about Reagan in South Carolina. "We finished second, not a close second, I might add. . . . Gov. Reagan is still the champ and we haven't overtaken him, and I don't think we're going to overtake him and I don't at this point see that my future continuation as a candidate for the Republican nomination contributes to the good of the party or to the good of the country."
He took a deep breath. Nellie squeezed and smiled up at him.
"Nellie and I want to tell you," he said, his voice breaking, "today I'm announcing the withdrawal of my candidacy." He paused, stepped back from the mike, blinked and cleared his throat, his head down. The television cameras whirred away. The press scribbled. A Newsman's Land
Just a year ago at a Washington dinner party, one of those Eastern liberal media establishment parties, a group of pundits were predicting with customary assuredness the outcome of the 1980 campaign. "John Conally and Ted Kennedy," said one man with total conviction. "No question, they'll be the nominees. They're the two strongest candidates by far. What a race?" Everyone agreed.
John Connally on paper looked like the perfect presidential candidate: a tough leader with business and government experiences, attractive, and winner, just the man the American people would want for these troubled times.
He had only one obstacle. The media. When he spoke in front of crowds he could have them eating out of his hands. Indeed, as one of his campaign workers at Connally headquarters in Houston said Sunday night, "I always said if John Connally could talk to every American at once and then have them vote five minutes later he'd win by a landslide."
But the media. He just couldn't win them over. No matter what he tried -- attacking them, cajoling them, reviling them, flattering them, pandering to them -- nothing worked.
He could never forget Lbj's words to a mutual friend after the former president had stepped down from office: "The media will destroy John Connally the way they destroyed me."
They just didn't seem to like him and he couldn't figure out why. The TV medium would edit him down and leave in the unflattering parts of an interview. The written press would describe him inevitably as the Texas wheeler-dealer -- or worse, he claims, they'd black him out completely.
Exactly three years ago this month John Connally addressed the Press Club of Houston, where he launched an attack of that institution that left some members stunned.
"It seems to me," he told them, "that the press is like a maverick passenger in a lifeboat. That lifeboat, which bears all of us, keeps us out of the tyrannical waters of lost freedoms, including freedom of the press. Yet, through some sort of distorted logic, the press seems dedicated to kicking holes in the ship of state, rather than trying to make it more seaworthy."
He talked about the press being a big business like those some people want to break up, with big profits though they pay nothing for their raw materials in most cases," and he equated the power of the press with that of the presidency, the Congress, or the Supreme Court, Saying there was no real mechanism for checking the abuse of this power except for self-discipline, he outlined four areas in which the press could oppress:
"The misleading or damaging healine fashioned by some desk man taking out his bias or anger in bold black letters."
"The technique of page makeup which gives magnified attention to a story."
"The quiet but deadly techniuque of benign neglect or burial of a story."
"The more serious matter of the growing volume of news reporting on serious subjects by reporters and writers with superficial understanding of the subject." The Press at His. . .
But last summer, as he was gearing up his campaign, he had a change of heart. He decided to woo the media to get to know them, to make friends with them.
Remembering the old line likening the press to the Nazis -- either at your feet or at your throat -- he decided he'd rather have them at his feet.
So he and Nellie set up Several "media weekends" at their rance outside of San Antonio where they invited couples to come down and visit with the candidate, partake of Southern hospitality, get to see the real John Connally.
They didn't work out too well.
John Connally was ill at ease in his role of soliciting favors. He was subdued, uncomfortable. I was difficult for him to conceal what was obviously a certain contempt for the profession.
Occasionally unable to stand it, he would burst out with a challenge --"How come y'all don't write more about Chappaquiddick?" Or he would condemn the practice of reporting on peoples's private lives, saying, "I'd sure like to see somebody write about the press' private lives -- the public has a right know about the media as much as about the politicians."
Finally, John Connally was more comfortable with the media "at his throat." And during his campaign he was either accusing them of writing too much about him -- the wheeler-dealer image, the milk-fund trial where they never seemed to remember to write that he was acquitted -- or else they would black him out completely.
A campaign aide, Mike Crockett, Connally's traveling companion for two years, ticked off several specific events of media blackouts: a big fundraiser in Boston, an endorsement by the former mayor, blacked out. An endorsement by the mayor of Des Moines, Iowa, blacked out. "Face the Nation" reneged on an offer. And of course everyone points to the "hatchet job" Mike Wallace did on "60 Minutes" as the final nail in the coffin.
Earlier this week in South Carolina, when the polls showed him trailing, and it looked as if the demise of his campaign was imminent, he blamed his plight on what he called the "Eastern establishment media," and said they had distorted the campaign "just because I think they want to write my political obituary." He complained about the poll -- "Y'all just take it and go with it like a bunch of parrots. You all are like lemmings being led off over a cliff, for heaven's sake, like some Pied Piper just playing a tune and you all just waltz out to see." No Tooth Fairies
Funny. Some of his supporters didn't see it that way.
They had a lot of other reasons why they thought he didn't do so well, but none said the media were responsible.
Saturday night in Columbia, S.C., at the Capitol Inn, the red, white and blue streamers and the festive balloons belied the glum mood as early returns came in, showing that John Connally was getting clobbered by Ronald Reagan. This, in light of Connally's all-out support from the popular Sen. Strom Thurmond, and two weeks of heavy campaigning.
Jesse T. Connally, a heavyset elderly man, just kept shaking his head as people around him headed for the bar to drown their sorrows and the band played loudly to drown out their despair.
"i've done some awful hard calling in the last two months," said Connally, who claims to be a distant relative. "They all seem to think Reagan is the man for it. I had to bless'em out. They say Connally was the assistant to Jack Kennedy. He was shot with Kennedy, and they still held it against him for being with Kennedy. And they don't like it cuz he switched from Democrat to Republican, even though the helped Strom Thurmond when he did it." Then Connally brightens. "But I just say if at first you don't suc-ceed, keep on suc-ckin' until you do suc-ceed."
Dr. Glen H. Sullivan felt "the bottom line is that John Connally tells it the way it is. People just and they don't want real solutions to real problems. He's not saying what's politically expedient." And the third supporter felt that "Americans have to understand things have got to hurt a little before they get better. Ain't no tooth fairy gonna come along and fix things." 4 Months, 14 Years
When John Connally finally came downstairs Saturday night to concede defeat to Reagan and announced that he would go back to Houston to "reassess" his campaign, Strom Thurmond took the microphone to explain the defeat.
"He was here for four weeks and Gov. Reagan was here for 14 years," said the 77-year-old Thurmond, as his wife, Nancy, a blinked back her tears. "I know because I was with him. But don't get discouraged. This is a comparatively young man. He's going to be president yet."
Later Thurmond would say, "People here haven't had the chance to know him like they know Reagan." Asked about the role of the media, Thurmond would only reply noncommittally." A great many people feel that the other candidates got more coverage than he did, that they ignored him entirely."
As for his finance manager, Ben Barnes, former lieutenant governor of Texas: "John is not running 13 years for anything. He's not running 13 years for anything. He's not really a national figure. The most publicity he's gotten has been over the assassination of Kennedy and the mild-fund trial. I think the Connally campaign has not had enough communication with the press. They'll say off the record that he's the best qualified candidate. These are all bureau chiefs and senior correspondents. I don't think he got a totally fair break from the media. He and the press should have gotten to know one another better." Then he added, "You know John Connally is so talented, his mind is so quick, he's so strong, maybe the American people were alarmed by him, maybe it concerned 'em." Blackout, Texas Style
Connally straightened up. Nellie withdrew her arm from aroung his waist. A wicked glint came into his eyes. When he had cleared his throat, after announcing his withdrawal, the crowd welled up with sympathy, But John Connally doesn't like sympathy, doesn't want it. He'd rather have them at his throat.
"...This is not a withdrawal from politics, I want you to understand," he said.
The home folks and dear friends laughed and cheered with relief. This was the old John Connally, the fighter they knew and loved. The press took note.
He talked about how the country was in real trouble and said if it was, it was because "too few people spoke frankly and honestly." But the time he opened the floor to questions, Nellie was seated confidently behind him. He didn't need her arm around his waist now. He was asked what caused his defeat.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "People write books, they get paid to speculate about it."
He was jovial, upbeat, laughing, bantering confident. He gave two reasons why his candidacy failed. "One, we have not been able to erode Gov. Reagan's strength. It's there. It's solid and deep and devoted and strong. rIf somebody else can shake it, I'm going to congratulate him."
"Secondly, I think we all have to recognize that at a very crucial time for not just me, last November's capture of the embassy at Tehran changed the whole political environment in America. It had a profound effect on the whole political process of the country. It put everything in a state of turmoil. Up until then Sen. Kennedy appeared to be a certain winner over Carter and that the Republicans better nonminate the toughest campaigner to compete with him. That worked to my benefit."
So. Not one word about the media. Nothing. Neither in Columbia Saturday nor at the press conference Sunday afternoon. A complete blackout. s
He wasn't to give it to them. There wasn't going to be any "You won't have John Connally to kick around anymore" speech.
If he was going to go down, he was going to do it for himself, not give any media the satisfaction of thinking that they got him. And ironically, he was finally getting the media coverage he claimed he had never gotten during the campaign.
He was asked later if he thought the media were a problem.
"I'm not gonna talk about it," he said firmly. The Serene Dropout
High above Houston, during lunch at the exclusive "Ramada Club" yesterday, John Connally seems relaxed and confident, as though the events of Sunday are far behind him.
"Peaceful," he is saying. "I feel peaceful."
Businessmen and colleagues come by the table to offer their condolences. He just laughs and shakes their hands, refusing to accept their sadness, telling them not to worry. He is in control. Earlier, in his offices at Vinson and Elkins overlooking the city from the same building, Connally settled back in his deep leather chair to review his short-lived campaign. He is enjoying this now. He doesn't need the media. They need him. He is being besieged by reporters for interviews. He can dole out time or hoard it as he will.
John Connally has granted this interview on the condition that the subject of the media and their impact on his campaign not be discussed. But for all the world he cannot help alluding to this forbidden subject time and time again, and daringly circles it throughout the entire interview.
"What most people haven't written," he says, "is what my real problem was in this campaign. They always ask about the milk-fund trial and about the wheeler-dealer image and about the party switch. They always talked about the negatives. But nobody ever tried to analyze why the negatives. The answer is that among Republicans there was and is a lingering doubt about me because of my association with Lyndon Johnson. That might help you in a general election. But it was my one big hurdle for the nomination and I never overcame it. The mere fact that I had been associated with him is an anathema.
"So they [the press] took the easy answer. The problem was either the milk fund or the wheeler-dealer image. Why didn't I have a wheeler-dealer image? I had it because of my association with Johnson. I wasn't a wheeler-dealer. But there wasn't any point in me trying to solve the problem. w
"And they meant wheeler-dealer in the worst sense of those words, not in the best sense. I guess in the best sense a wheeler-dealer is a politican who knows how to operate in the political arena to achieve desirable objectives. In the good sense you have to be one to get anything. In the worst sense a wheeler-dealer achieves objectives without regard to methods used, or to a principle trammeled. Republicans didn't view Johnson as a good wheeler-dealer. They saw him as an unprincipled practitioner of the dark arts of politics."
Later, again he cirles the subject of the media. "Oh, I don't really think I had a chance, really to come across one way or the other," he responds to a question about the publics perception of him. "If we make a mistake it was spending too much resources on a 50-state effort as opposed to spending most of the money on the media. At least that way it would have given Americans a chance to judge me themselves, they way I looked, rather than being interpreted by TV commentators, columnists and reporters.
"How do you cure that? You use your own money for media. We should have done it. I didn't do it. Why do most officeholders come from positions of power? Because people know them, have a perception of them. Congress people develop a name identification, a following. I had no such such background. The last time I held office I left in 1972. I was a Democrat. The only publicity I've had since I've been a Republican was in the milk-fund trial and that was negative. When I talk to people personally I can convince 'em, persuade 'em. We should have spent every dime on media."
But John Connally says he is not bitter, not resentful. "In the first place," he says, "I guess I'm not given to recrimination. I'm not a hater. I don't blame other people. I'm prepared to take the blame for what I am, directly or indirectly. I guess I have a basic attitude about it. Of relative serentity. I'm not consumed with personal ambition. I don't need to be president for an ego trip, for the power and glory that surrounds it. I just think the job needs to be done. I gave a year of my life, why grieve about it? Why worry about it?"
As John Connally is finishing his lunch in the Ramada Club another businessman friend of his walks over to the table to sympathize. Once again, Connally refuses the sympathy. He is smiling and upbeat. "Well, John," asks the man sadly, "what are you going to do now?"
"I," answers the former candidate for the presidency, " am going to make some money." Clean
He may have been down but it was clean, no blood, no mess. It was beautiful, dignified.
"Of course," he would say at the press conference on Sunday, "we could have run it differently. But I don't know if it would have made any difference. What are the words. . . 'the saddest words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, it might have been. . .?'"
He straightened up and looked the press proudly in the eyes of their cameras. "No sir," he said, "there's no point in living in the past."