HOUSTON -- An American Dickens would have known how to write of the irony that brought George Bush back to Houston last Friday night, the very night they began auctioning off the worldly possessions of John Connally.

The vice president was in town to commission the USS San Jacinto, a new missile cruiser. Bush and his gray-haired buddies were celebrating their memories of its predecessor, the World War II aircraft carrier from which Bush flew, at the self-same hour that Connally, the former governor of Texas, and his wife, Nellie, were walking into a swarm of television cameras and microphones at the Hart Galleries.

It was the first of four days of auctioning the possessions they had acquired over the past 30 years, with the proceeds going to pay off some of the $93 million in business debts that drove Connally into bankruptcy.

Connally walked in with head high, as always, and a word of greeting for the old friends who had turned out to support him. But it had to be a humiliating moment for the proud Texan. The television cameras caught him wiping away a tear as one of the first items, an ornamental saddle, went to a Buick dealer for $10,500.

Bush and Connally had been rivals for years. But a quarter-century ago, few would have guessed that Connally would be looking at financial ruin while Bush was engaged in a campaign that could well make him president of the United States.

In January 1963, Connally had just been inaugurated as governor of Texas, a smart, handsome, confident young man with limitless prospects. He was the beau ideal of the Texas business-banking-financial establishment, the close friend and political prote'ge' of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and, with Johnson, the most important Texas link to President John F. Kennedy, whom he had served as secretary of the Navy.

At the same point, George Bush was a Yankee newcomer to Houston, recruited as Harris County chairman of a struggling Republican Party. By 1964, when Bush made the first of his unsuccessful tries for the Senate, Johnson was president and Connally even more politically untouchable as the man who was wounded in the same attack that killed Kennedy. It was at that point that the two men made their crucial decisions.

Bush picked himself up from the ruins of a political year that left the Republicans as weakened in Texas as they were across the nation. He adjusted his sights downward and ran for the House, winning in 1966 when Republican fortunes revived.

At the same point, Connally rejected the option of becoming the governor who would bring Texas into the modern age, with a school system, social services, an economy and a tax structure capable of withstanding the shocks the dominant oil and agriculture sectors would suffer in the 1970s.

Politically immune from challenge after Nov. 22, 1963, Connally could have done for Texas what Terry Sanford was doing for North Carolina or LeRoy Collins for Florida -- creating the legal, financial and educational foundation for the future growth and prosperity of those states.

Instead, he chose to cast himself as the defender of the status quo and the entrenched privileges of the economic powers who had adopted and sponsored him almost from the moment his enormous talents emerged on the University of Texas -- Austin campus.

Reporters who visited him in those days heard him denounce the Great Society policies of his old mentor, Johnson, blaming them on the evil White House influence of such ''Kennedyites'' as his fellow Texan, Bill Moyers. While taking a thoroughly Tory stance on domestic policy, Connally became a fervent defender of Johnson's tragic Vietnam policy. He blocked critical resolutions at national governors' conferences. And he kept Hubert Humphrey from dissenting publicly by threatening to withhold Texas' votes at the 1968 Democratic convention.

Connally helped carry Texas for Humphrey in 1968. But the changes in the national Democratic Party after that election convinced him he could not fulfill his still-soaring ambitions as a Democrat. In 1971, he joined the Nixon administration as secretary of the Treasury and two years later formally became a Republican. It was, he later told friends, the biggest mistake he ever made.

But it did not appear so at the time. When the Connallys entertained Richard Nixon at their Picosa Ranch in 1972, it was a glittering scene. Corporate jets landed on his private strip, bringing the political and economic power brokers of Texas and the nation. Bush, serving in obscurity as United Nations envoy after yet another Senate defeat, didn't make the guest list.

But then came Watergate, and Nixon's private promise to help make Connally his successor became a curse, not a blessing. In 1980, Bush the plodder ran much closer to Ronald Reagan than Connally the dazzler and wound up on the ticket.

Their separate paths crossed again last weekend, as Bush took the salute at the commissioning ceremony of the ship bearing the name of the decisive battle for Texas' independence.

Thousands were there, but not John Connally. He had been governor and secretary of the Navy, and his picture was still on the front page, surrounded by the people who were bidding for his personal possessions. But no one thought to invite him to watch Bush at the San Jacinto ceremony.

Maybe they did him a favor. It might have been one humiliation too many.