Rather than go to prison, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned Oct. 10, 1973, and gave Richard Nixon a second chance to replace him with a former governor of Texas.
John Bowden Connally, Jr. rose from the humblest circumstances to become Lyndon Johnson’s right-hand man. He managed every major campaign of his mentor starting with LBJ’s unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate in 1941 to his landslide election as president in 1964.
In the meantime, Connally had stepped out of Johnson’s shadow by challenging Gov. Price Daniel in the 1962 Democratic primary. Starting out at 4% in the preference polls, he made short work of the scandal-plagued incumbent, who finished a poor third in the first round, and won a hard-fought runoff against Don Yarborough.
The next November, the 46-year-old governor was thrust onto the national stage by the tragedy in Dealey Plaza. Connally recovered from the serious gunshot wounds he suffered that terrible day, but for better or worse his life would never be the same.
After winning reelection with over 70% of the vote in 1964 and again in 1966, the popular politician decided he had done all he could do as Texas’ chief executive. He returned to private life with a prominent law firm in Houston.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a turning point for Connally. Personal loyalty to Johnson and a hawkish position on the Vietnam War caused him to bitterly resent the president being hounded from office by his own party. He left the Windy City a disenchanted Democrat.
When the new Republican president offered him a position on his foreign policy advisory board in 1969, Connally took it without reservation. The Texan felt he had more in common politically with Nixon – both were, in his words, “conservatives with a belief in active government” – than most members of his own party.
Nixon was so impressed with Connally — “awed” was how a close advisor described it — that in 1971 he invited him to join his cabinet as secretary of treasury. Again the Democrat accepted without a second thought.
After George McGovern, the “peace candidate,” captured his party’s presidential nomination in July 1972, Connally took the dramatic step of organizing “Democrats for Nixon.” Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s former press secretary, reacted to the news with the famous quip, “I’m just glad that we did not have to count on them at the Alamo.”
What few knew at the time was that Nixon had tried to talk Connally into being his running mate in the ’72 campaign. He wanted to dump Agnew, an asset that had turned into a liability, and was convinced the unhappy Democrat would help carry Texas and key southern states for the GOP ticket.
But Connally could not be tempted, not even when Nixon promised more power than any vice president in history. He belittled the mostly ceremonial post as “useless” much like fellow Texan John Nance Garner’s comparison to “a pitcher of warm spit.”
Richard Nixon did not need Connally at his side to swamp McGovern at the polls that fall. Nor, for that matter, did he need a dirty tricks unit called “the plumbers” to break into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
In his autobiography published in 1993, the year of his death, Connally expressed his firm opinion that Nixon had no prior knowledge of the bungled burglary. “I do not defend or excuse what happened in the Watergate scandal, but I believed, then and now, that he had no part in the break-in.” Going a giant step farther, he added, “I believe the long reach of history will treat him favorably as a president.”
In May 1973, four months after Lyndon Johnson passed away, Connally switched parties. He may have seen Agnew’s disgraced departure coming or simply thought the time had come to make it official.
Either way, when the vice president resigned that August as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors, Connally was a Republican and apparently willing to fill the vacancy. The prohibitive favorite in the press, he sat back and waited for the telephone to ring.
It took 10 days for Nixon to make up his mind. The announcement that a Michigan congressman named Gerald Ford would be the next vice president caught just about everybody by surprise.
In private, Nixon bluntly informed Ford that Connally had been his first choice. But in the end he faced the fact that the congressional confirmation required by the Constitution would be too tough a battle in the midst of the Watergate mess. Nixon did, however, make it clear that the Texan would have his support for a White House bid in 1976.
Connally’s name came up two more times in connection with the vice presidency — in August 1974, when Ford had to choose his own successor, and in August 1976, when the incumbent candidate selected a running mate in place of outgoing VP Nelson Rockefeller. On both occasions, John Connally’s late conversion to the Republican Party and the white-hot anger of Democrats over his defection kept him out in the cold.