Connally was commissioned in the United States Naval Reserve in 1941. As a fighter director aboard aircraft carriers, he went through nine major air-sea battles in the Pacific Theater. Aboard the USS Essex he endured fifty-two consecutive hours of Japanese kamikaze attacks in April 1945. He attained the rank of lieutenant commander and came home a hero. After returning to civilian life, Connally headed an investors' group of war veterans that owned and operated Austin radio station KVET (1946-49). He also joined an influential Austin law firm and during this period served as campaign manager in LBJ's 1946 reelection to Congress and successful 1948 Senate race. He then served as LBJ's aide until 1951, when he became Sid W. Richardson's legal counsel, a position he held until Richardson's death in 1959. Connally earned a reputation both as "Lyndon's boy" and as a "political mastermind" and expert strategist. His political credo was "Fight hard and rough, but when the battle is over, forget and dismiss." Connally managed five of LBJ's major political campaigns, including reelection to the United States House of Representatives in 1946, the 1941 and 1948 races for the United States Senate, the unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, and the election to the presidency in 1964. In LBJ's pivotal 1948 Senate race against former governor Coke R. Stevenson, Connally, as LBJ's campaign manager, was publicly linked to the suspicious late report of 200 votes in Box 13 from Jim Wells County, which had provided LBJ's eighty-seven-vote margin of victory. Connally denied any tie to vote fraud, but acknowledged that he had learned a lesson in managing LBJ's unsuccessful 1941 race for the Senate, when Johnson's seemingly decisive 5,000-vote lead had been whittled away by late election returns from East Texas. LBJ lost the 1941 race by 1,311 votes. In 1948 Connally instructed South Texas campaign operatives to understate their early returns in the vote canvassing because, he claimed, "we had been bitten once. It would not happen again."
Connally also ably assisted in various political turf skirmishes, including fights to control the state Democratic party. In these he was a field operative or grass-roots political ally of both LBJ and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who considered themselves leaders of the state party's "moderate conservative wing." One major struggle for party control was fought in 1952-56 against the "right-wing Shivercrats," led by Governor Allan Shivers, who bolted in 1952 and led a "Democrats for Eisenhower" move that helped the Republican presidential candidate carry Texas. A second, and longer-running, feud that extended through Connally's tenure as governor was with liberal senator Ralph Yarbrough. Divisions between liberal and conservative-moderate Democrats became a personal feud between Lyndon Johnson and Yarbrough, and Connally found himself embroiled in the feud because of his close ties to Johnson.
Connally served as Secretary of the Navy in 1961 in the cabinet of Democrat President John F. Kennedy. He won his first political race as a candidate for governor the next year. He was tall, handsome, personable, and articulate; his speech reflected his debate, drama, and declamation training in high school and college. He was also well-schooled in politics and government and had profited from his experience as Sid Richardson's legal counsel. Connally entered the race against a large field of candidates, including Governor Price Daniel, Sr., who was seeking a fourth term. A poll showed that Connally had only 4 percent of the votes at the outset. But in addition to wealthy backers such as the oilman Richardson, he had a strong grass-roots network of politically astute supporters. Connally won a 1962 runoff by 26,000 votes. The next year he survived serious gunshot wounds inflicted in the Kennedy assassination. He speculated that both he and JFK might have been the assassin's targets. He was reelected by a 3-to-1 vote margin in 1964 and won a third term in 1966 with 72 percent of the vote.
Connally had grown up on his family's South Texas cotton farm in the hard-scrabble status of "a barefoot boy of mule-plowed furrows." His accomplishments as governor "epitomized the big man of Texas" and "personified the Texas establishment as the Texas establishment wanted to see itself." He considered himself "a conservative who believed in active government." He had a vision of moving Texas into a dynamic era and entered the governorship saying that his administration should emphasize one of three crucial issues of the day: education, race relations, or poverty. He chose to be "an education governor" both because he believed that the most enduring way to address social problems was through education and because he "had a farm boy's dream to become the governor of the intellectuals and of the cultivated." Connally effectively used his political skills to increase taxes substantially in order to finance higher teachers' salaries, better libraries, research, and new doctoral programs. He considered this the crowning achievement of his administration. He promoted programs to reshape and reform state government, to develop the state's tourism industry (including his endorsement of liquor by the drink and parimutuel betting), to establish a state fine arts commission and a state historical commission, and to establish the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, which was initiated as part of HemisFair '68, a state-supported world's fair at San Antonio.
After leaving the governor's office in 1969 Connally joined Vinson and Elkins, a large law firm in Houston named for William Ashton Vinson and James A. Elkins, both early principals in the firm. The same year, he was named a member of President Richard M. Nixon's foreign-intelligence advisory board and assumed a favored position among Nixon's advisors (it was said that "If Connally is not for a matter, the President won't do it"). In 1971 he became Nixon's Secretary of the Treasury and earned a reputation as "a tough American statesman." He sought to address the nation's growing trade deficit and inflation by such mechanisms as currency devaluation and a price freeze. In 1972 he spearheaded a Democrats for Nixon organization that helped the Republican president carry Texas. Connally switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 1973, three months after LBJ's death. In the wake of the bribery-related resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1973, Nixon passed word that he would name Connally to fill the vacancy. This would have put Connally in a strong position to run for president in 1976. Nixon and Connally had privately mused about starting a new Whig-type party in the tradition of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. But Democrats and Republicans alike in the Senate erupted in a "firestorm of protest." Warnings went up that if Nixon pursued the appointment, some powerful Senate Democrats "would be determined to destroy Connally." This was during the height of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately forced Nixon to resign. Nixon named House minority leader Gerald Ford vice president but said that he intended to support Connally for the 1976 GOP nomination. In the aftermath, Connally rejoined Vinson and Elkins but soon confronted a criminal prosecution for alleged bribery and conspiracy in a "milk-price" scandal. He was acquitted after a trial in federal court.
Connally's aborted effort to win the GOP's presidential nomination in 1980 was short-lived. He was hurt in part by a "wheeler-dealer" identification reminiscent of LBJ, and a press criticism that he was a political "chameleon." He was also damaged by a 1977 bank partnership he entered into with two Arab sheiks and an ill-advised or misunderstood speech he delivered to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. in 1979, that was interpreted as having anti-Semitic overtones. Connally raised and spent $11 million on the fourteen-month campaign but dropped out of the primaries, having gained the binding commitment of only one GOP convention delegate. He felt himself to be a victim of the Watergate scandal. After he lost his bid for the presidential nomination in 1980, he left politics and government.
In February 1982 Connally, a man of some wealth, took mandatory retirement from Vinson and Elkins. In 1981 he went into the business of real estate development with his former political protégé, Ben Barnes. In the partnership Connally was the "intimidating Olympian eminence," and Barnes was the "sometimes overpowering salesman and legman." Both had superb business and political contacts in the state and nation "and saw no reason why the values of their political life could not work equally well in their business life." The partners "conducted business," however, "as if they were campaigning for higher office." They signed personal notes on loans bearing short-term interest at 18 percent and by June 1983 had sixteen major projects under way totaling $231 million. It was a boom time in the Texas petroleum industry, with world oil prices ranging up to thirty-seven dollars a barrel. When the oil price collapsed, the state's economy collapsed. Connally and Barnes were out on a limb that broke and took them with it, along with many other wealthy Texans and most of the state's major financial institutions. The fiasco led Connally to acknowledge that "we were moving too far too fast and paying dearly for it." He declared bankruptcy, and he and Nellie held a globally publicized auction of their holdings and expensive personal belongings to apply the proceeds to their debt. The positions Connally held in law and business had taken him to the high echelons of corporate America. He was a director of the Coastal Corporation, Kaiser Tech, Kaiser Aluminum, Methodist Hospital of Houston, and Maxxam, Incorporated. He had earlier served on the boards of the New York Central Railroad, U.S. Trust, Pan American Airways, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Greyhound Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Signal Companies, First City Bank Corporation, Superior Oil Company, Falkenbridge Nickel, and American General Insurance. He was a member of the State Bar of Texas, and the American, Houston, and District of Columbia Bar associations. Connally died on June 15, 1993, at the Methodist Hospital of Houston, where he was being treated for pulmonary fibrosis. He was buried in the State Cemetery in Austin. He was survived by his wife, a daughter, Sharon C. Ammann, and two sons, John Bowden III and Mark.
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