Big John was always the best show in town. In his cowboy boots and perfectly tailored three-piece suits, he was bigger than life, a superb orator, quick on his feet, tough, decisive, blustery.
He looked like a president, tall, jut-jawed and silver-haired. He acted like a president. He was, his friends insisted, the most qualified and electable candidate for the job in history.
The trouble was, hardly anyone wanted to vote for him.
In the end, the numbers did him in. Today in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott West Loop Hotel in Houston, before more than 500 supporters, John Connally pulled out of the presidential race, saying it "would not contribute to the good of the party or the good of the country" to continue.
"I don't ever intend to be a candidate again," he said.
Connally had campaigned for 14 months and spent upwards of $11 million, at least $500,000 of it his own money. All he had to show for it was one delegate, Ida Mills of Arkansas.
What went wrong?
John Bowdein Connally's credentials were impressive: Three-time governor of Texas, secretary of the Navy, secretary of the Treasury, adviser to three presidents, lawyer able to command $500,000 a year in fees, rancher, businessman, family man, son of a tenant farmer, a man who could honestly say, "I've been poor and I've been rich, and rich is better."
But many felt Connally's candidacy was doomed from the start, that he carried too much baggage into the race. Connally has what professional politicians call "a high negative," a problem he shares with another floundering candidate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Kennedy's biggest negative is Chappaquiddick. Connally's negatives are harder to separate: he was a defendant in a highly publicized bribery trial (in which he was acquitted), a close adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, a self-professed friend of big business, and until recent years, a Democrat.
They all amount to a wheeler-dealer image.
About one-third of the voters surveyed in most polls said they simply didn't trust Connally and wouldn't vote for him under any circumstances. Eddie Mahe, Connally's chief strategist, argued that this didn't make the Texan's candidacy an impossible one.
"But it did make things more difficult for us," he says. "It was hard for us to get people to listen to what we had to say. His ties with Lyndon Johnson hurt us in the South; his party change hurt us in the Northeast."
Instead of trying to dispel the negatives, Connally tried to make them an asset. He campaigned as the only real leader in the Republican field, the only one tough enough to stand up to America's friends and enemies, Teddy Kennedy and the Democratic Congress.
At one point, he even tried to turn his milk fund bribery trial to his advantage before a group of dairy farmers. "Let me tell y'all something," he declared amid the cow manure in a cattle auction ring in Waverly, Iowa. "None of you have made the sacrifices for the dairy industry that I have. I got indicted because of it. If you think I don't know anything about milk production and milk prices, you're crazy."
He told GOP regulars there was nothing wrong with being the right kind of a wheeler-dealer. He told corporate executives: "What is evil about business? Business is the heart of America. Business is the heart of government."
Businessmen loved it. And Connally quickly became the candidate of corporate America. Millions flowed into his campaign coffers. By early October, top officers of one-fourth of the Fortune 500 firms had contributed to Connally, causing chagrin among his Republican opponents.
Connally talked their language. They felt comfortable with him, and took a near-missionary view of his candidacy.
Connally was soon to learn how little corporate American counts for in the presidential nominating process. In state after state, the numbers were consistently bad for Connally.
In the Iowa precinct caucuses he got 9 percent of the vote, in the Puerto Rican primary only 0.9 percent, in New Hampshire 1.5 percent, in Massachusetts and Vermont 1 percent each and in the Minnesota caucuses just 4 percent. On Saturday in South Carolina, in the primary on which he had bet his political future, he got 30 percent -- but ran 24 points behind the man he had to stop, Ronald Reagan.
It was the negatives that always plagued him.
SCENE 1: A cold, mid-January night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Connally, trailing badly in the state, has bought an hour of time on a local television station for a live call-in show. Like almost all of his many TV efforts, it is crudely staged and amateurish.
Connally and a nervous local TV personality sit beside a coffee table. taking calls directly. Twenty minutes into the show, a male caller tells Connally he intends to vote for him and thinks the former Texas governor is a great American. But he adds he has a problem with his wife and would like Connally's help.
"What's the problem?" Asks a grinning Connally.
"She thinks you're a crook."
This gives the candidate a chance to explain at length that he was acquitted on charges of taking a $10,00 0 bribe from milk producers in exchange for lobbying for higher milk support prices in the Nixon administration.
"I'm the only certified non-guilty political figure in the country," Connally declares.
"I've told my wife all of that," the man responds.
"What did she say?"
"She still thinks you're a crook."
Everything Connally's campaign did was first class. He paid top dollar. He flew Learjets when other candidates went on commercial airlines. His fulltime staff was huge (more than 500 at one time) and, until all salaries were cut off a month ago, well paid.
Advisers were stacked layer upon layer. The joke in the political community was, "Eddie [Mahe] hired every political consultant he knew."
"They gave no thought to money as long as it was coming in," says David Keene, George Bush's political director. "It was a classic case of how not to manage a campaign in the 1980s. They hired far too many people and bought far too much hardware."
In December, Mahe was removed as campaign manager although he continued to work as a strategist. He was replaced by Charles Keating, an Arizona businessman best known for leading a national crusade against pornography. Keating lasted only 60 days, and then in the last few weeks Connally functioned as his own manager.
Internal problems doubtlessly hurt the campaign, but Mahe correctly says, "No one would have noticed if we were winning." More crucial were four basic strategic decisions:
Kennedy. Connally assumed that Kennedy would be the Democratic nominee and leadership would be the major issue of the campaign. His boast was that he was the only Republican charismatic enough to take on the Kennedy legend. The Kennedy legend quickly disappeared after the Massachusetts senator became a candidate.
The 50-state strategy. Connally decided to run a national campaign, attempting to organize in every state instead of concentrating on a few early ones. "He and Howard Baker [who dropped out of the presidential race last week] ignored the importance of the calendar," says Keene. "The important thing about Iowa and New Hampshire is they come first. They realized that too late."
Matching funds. Connally, alone among the 1980 candidates, decided not to take federal matching funds. The theory was that he would not be bound by the spending limits for each state, as opposed to candidated who took matching funds. He thus would be able to outspend his opponents. But Connally ran short of money, and was unable to spend much more than his rivals anyway.
Bush. Connally underestimated his Houston neighbor and GOP rival. The two men come from vastly different backgrounds: Connally is a classic Texan, complete with ranch and all the trimmings. The Yale-educated Bush doesn't even own a cow.
There has never been any love lost between the two men, and it sometimes seemed they were running for king of Houston rather than president of the United States. After being trounced by Bush in state after state, Connally beat him decisively in the South Carolina primary Saturday night. "Let's one of the more satisfying aspects of the evening was that development," said Julian Read, a longtime Connally friend.
Connally is a political version of George Patton, the World War II general, a real hell-fire-and-brimstone, shoot-from-the-hip figure. On the stump, he is stunningly impressive in his charcoal gray suits, silver hair and strong jaw. He is one of the last of the old-fashioned political orators, and his campaign was the best roadshow of the year.
His message was a chilling one, full of doom and gloom. The Russians are coming from all sides, gobbling up territory like a Texas barbecue. The Japanese are taking us to the cleaners. The economy has gone to hell. So have the Army and Navy. "Permissiveness, pornography and promiscuity" have taken over the land.
He would give the same speech a dozen times, always talking without notes, and make it sound different each time. But the lines that drew the most applause were always the same:
"We've got to quit taking scientific advice from the Jane Fondas and Ralph Naders of this world . . .".
"If appeasement were an art form, the Carter administration would be the Rembrandt of the age . . .". Unless the Japanese ease trade barriers for U.S. products they should "be made to sit on the docks of Yokohama in their own Toyotas watching their own Sony television sets."
SCENE 2: Fairfield Bay, Ark. Arkansas delegates to the national convention in Detroit are to be picked at two caucuses: one statewide and one in each congressinal district. Less than 50 party regulars will take part. Connally invites them all to an all-expenses-paid weekend at Fairfield Bay, a luxury resort in the Ozark Mountains, at a cost of $10,000.
The first day is very soft sell, with ample booze, food, bluegrass music and dancing. The candidate and his wife, Nellie, are casual and low key, just regular folks.
The hard sell is to come at Sunday brunch. But just before Connally and Co. are to give their pitch, an elderly man in the group comes to Connally's table to shake his hand. Tragically, he suffers a heart attack and dies on the spot. A pall falls over the room. The weekend is a shambles, $10,000 about to be wasted.
But after 20 minutes, Lynn Lowe, state GOP chairman, rises to give an emotional prayer. Connally follows him to the podium. He is another, his voice low and soothing: "Everything I say here will be clouded by what happened here."
But with a tremendous show of oratorical brilliance, Connally moves into a standard "damn the Russians and damn the Democrats" stump speech. The dead man is forgotten. Everyone leaves impressed with Connally. The weekend is saved.
The dead man's widow tells one Connally supporter: "My husband died happily."
Big John got similar reactions everywhere he campaigned. The crowds came out. They listened. They cheered. The funny things was that when he finished it was hard to find anyone who said they intend to vote for him. His message simply didn't sell.
He was the hottest rookie in the grapefruit league. But when the real season opened the turned out to be just a flash in the pan. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where things turned around for him.
Connally says "the breaking point" came in October when he gave a foreign policy speech calling for a "new approach" to the Mideast. "A clear distinction must be drawn by the United States between support for Israel's security, which is a moral imperative, and support for Israel's broader territorial acquisitions."
The speech drew cries of outrage from Jewish leaders, and Connally claims it turned the press against him.
A more realistic turning point was a straw ballot held last November in Florida at a state Republican convention. Connally spent several hundred thousand dollars and predicted he would be Ronald Reagan. "in my world second is fine and third is worse, but neither of them are acceptable. You have to win," he said at one point. "You don't win at any price. You just win."
Reagan got 36 percent, Connally 26 percent. A strong thrid-place finish by George Bush made Connally's second look even worse.
By the time that vote was taken, the American hostages had been seized in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Jimmy Carter's popularity had begun to soar, and the GOP presidential race was momentarily forgotten by most of the public.
"The backdrop, the canvas, our campaign was playing against the chain" of events, Connally communications director Read said late Saturday night. "As it did, it made it more difficult for us to raise money and to get attention.We were playing to a different hall, a different arena."
"What did us in?" Read continued. "His name is Ronald Reagan. And he's been on the road and on television for years. He has a very solid, emotional constituency that we didn't penetrate. He just beat us."
Read spoke just hours after Connally had run 24 points behind Reagan in South Carolina, the state where Connally had campaigned for 21 days, spent lavishly and had the support of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the state's most popular politician. Connally didn't have the time, money or support of Strom Thurmonds elsewhere. So today he bowed out.
Wearing a blue suit and blue tie, his face flushed and his eyes just a little moist, Connally went out with typical style. He praised the man he couldn't beat, Ronald Reagan, and said "if somebody else can shake it [Reagan's strength], I'm going to go congratulate him."
(Reagan, campaigning in Florida, seemed pleased with the news and told a hastily assembled news conference he would "be very proud and happy" to have the support of Connally's followers.)
He refused to endorse any of his fellow candidates, but left the door open for an endorsement later. He said he wanted his name taken off the ballot for the May 3 Texas primary, and when he was asked whether he would consider leaving it on as a surrogate for Gerald Ford, he replied, "I'm not going to be a surrogate for anyone."
And though he pulled out of the presidential race, he added to thunderous applause that it did not represent "a withdrawal from politics, I want you to understand that."
SCENE 3: It is late in a day that began at 6 a.m., and Connally is at the back of a bus bouncing across South Carolina's Piedmont plateau. He is asked for the hundredth time of the week why his campaign isn't doing better.
"It's you, the press," he says laucnching into a 15-minute diatribe.
"The press frankly thinks I'm a Texan and an outsider. I'm not an Eastern establishment liberal. I'm a conservative and a Republican and most of the press is Democratic and liberal.
"The press doesn't want me nominated. The press would love to have George Bush nominated so they'd have two members of the Trilateral Commission running against one another. And if they can't get that, they want Ronald Reagan because they can beat him.
"I know the press better than you," he tells two reporters sitting at his side. "I've been around the press longer than you. I didn't come to town on a hay wagon yesterday."