Republican Sheik BY CHAR MILLER San Antonio THERE IS AN OLD STORY about two European Jews sitting on a park bench during the 1930s, one of whom demands to know why the other reads the anti-Semitic ravings of the fascist press. “Well,” his friend replies, “when I read Jewish newspapers, I get depressed: all I hear about are troubles, of how persecuted we are. But the fascists write that we are a great and powerful people. Why, we control the international banking system, force powerful rulers to their knees and conspire to dominate the world! Which paper would you rather read?” This wonderfully subversive commentary on the tangled relationship between victims and victimizers came to mind while listening to some startling television commentary following the death of John Connally. It turns out that Governor Connally would have been President of the United States if it had not been for the Jews. That the Jews robbed Connally of his rightful place in the American political firmament emerged in an interview with family members that aired on KMOL-TV in San Antonio, just hours after Big John’s demise. One of his brothers argued that Jewish voters had broken with Connally over a major campaign address in 1979 in which he had offered a controversial Middle East peace proposal. They “dropped him cold,” this brother averred, when they learned that Connally believed that there were “two sides” to the Arab-Israeli conflict; their subsequent opposition destroyed his campaign, teaching the South Texas Republican convert just how powerful the Jews could be. Political life is never so simple. Connally failed to capture the White House for a number of reasons, including a troubled political past and a volatile personality; his nowfamed speech on the Middle East then was but part of a larger problem. The problems began with the man, or at least with the voters’ perceptions of him, according to James Reston Jr.’s exceptional biography of Connally, The Lone Star \(Harper announced his candidacy, for example, he was attacked as yet another Texas “wheeler Char Miller teaches American history at Trinity University in San Antonio. dealer,” a larger-than-life caricature who spent freely, hobnobbed with the corporate jet set and pandered to the little people. His public image was soured further by memories of bribery charges leveled against him in the early ’70s it was alleged that he had accepted $10,000 from the milk producers and although he was acquitted, the stain remained. Humorist Cactus Pryor, for one, feigned astonishment that Connally would accept a bribe so small: “Why he spends that much every week on hair spray.” A too-slick Connally was going to be a tough sell to a post-Watergate America, a society that hungered for honesty in public life, as much as it did for fiscal restraint, diminished bureaucracy and lower taxes. Moreover, he also had to overcome doubts about his political opportunism: This converted Republican was never fully accepted by die-hard members of his new political family. While campaigning in New Hampshire in 1979, Connally received a rude lesson in the costs of becoming a political chameleon. There, he was savaged by its right-wing press, particularly by William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, who called Connally “a veteran Democrat politician of the LBJ era in Texas” who puts on a “wonderful looking front, but it is all on the surface.” In addition to being shallow, in Loeb’s view, Connally was also unpatriotic: “In the last few years, Connally has done most of his wheeling and dealing with oil-wealthy Arabs of the Middle East. He might be called the Arab’s candidate for the President of the United States.” Loeb’s incendiary attack is important for two reasons: It came from a New England state that had been badly burned during the 1973 Arab boycott, and it came seven months before Connally delivered his Middle East address. The potential consequences of his foreign policy were already under attack. At issue was Connally’s 1977 purchase, with two Arab sheiks, of the Main Bank of Houston, a business relationship that netted him considerable wealth. As Reston observed, however, “Connally [now],had a direct, personal and financial stake in a cozy relationship with the Arab world,” and that in turn meant he had taken on a “serious, if not catas trophic, political liability.” Not for him, the pose of a “disinterested statesman.” His partisanship emerged in the late summer of 1979 when Republican polls showed him falling way behind Ronald Reagan. Hoping to distinguish himself from the aged front-runner, calculating that a pro-Arab posture on the Middle East peace process might divide Jewish and black voters and draw the latter to his standard, Connally decided to give the most important speech of his political life. It contained three planks: Israel was to withdraw its 1967 borders, “moderate” Arab states would recognize Israel’s right to exist and Jerusalem would become an “international” city. As Reston pointed out, there was little new in the address the last four presidents made similar recommendations but it nonetheless generated a firestorm. Hot on Connally’s case were the usual demons in the conservative cosmology the New Republic and the New York Times as well as an odd set of devils: fundamentalist Christians, including the wife of his campaign manager, rapidly deserted him, believing he had become, in Reston’s words, “the candidate of the infidels.” Jewish reaction was no less swift, but not because of his infidelity: Connally in fact had counted on their anger. As speechwriter Sam. Hoskinson. remembered: “Connally knew [his speech] was a risk, but he knew we weren’tgetting any contributions from the Jewish community.” Jews hadn’t turned on Connally, he had turned on them. That John Connally’s brother continues to think otherwise is not surprising. What makes the argument of a Jewish conspiracy so compelling, after all, is that it absolves Connally of responsibility for his many political failings. Fantasy is a blessed antidote to reality, which is exactly what that mythical Jew on a park bench understood. Interested in collecting the art of the Texas Observer? The Texas Observer is now offering velox reproductions of its covers for lust $10. If you are interested in beginning a collection, contact Stefan Wanstrom at 477-0746. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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