Someone recently described Donald Trump as a modern version of Ronald Reagan, which is nonsense. However, there is another 20th century American politician with whom Trump has a significant number of things in common. Now largely forgotten, that man is John Connally.
Connally (1917-1993) was perhaps most famous for being in the car with John F. Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas. As Governor of Texas he had been a principal organizer of the trip, which was intended to facilitate Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign. And being the host, he rode with Kennedy in the motorcade, ending-up seriously wounded in the process.
But there was much more to John Connally than collateral damage at Kennedy’s assassination.
A lawyer by profession, Connally wasn’t born to riches but he did have a knack of making himself very useful to rich men. And he was extremely adept at the gut-fighting necessary to thrive in the politics of post-war Democratic Texas. Allying himself with the ascending Lyndon Johnson, he became a formidable figure.
After serving 11 months in 1961 as Kennedy’s first Secretary of the Navy, Connally returned to Texas to win three gubernatorial terms. Then came a spectacular shift of allegiance: a high profile 16 months as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of the Treasury in 1971-72, a formal party switch from Democrat to Republican, and the status of being Nixon’s preferred successor.
But when Spiro Agnew’s 1973 resignation produced a mid-term vice-presidential vacancy, the Watergate-beleaguered Nixon was too politically enfeebled to force Connally’s approval through a hostile Democratic Senate. It was the closest that Connally ever got to the White House.
As for the similarities between Trump and Connally, both personal characteristics and political inclinations come into play.
To begin with, there’s the question of physical presence. Just as Trump tends to command attention on a crowded stage, Connally radiated a sense of natural authority. Tall, silver haired, handsome and immaculately dressed, he projected a central casting image of what a president should look like.
Then there’s the matter of ruthlessness, or, if you prefer, toughness. Trump delights in the perception of being a guy who’ll do whatever it takes to get his way, but Connally had toughness in spades. Even when Johnson was his boss, Connally had no compunction about defying him. Johnson may have been notorious for intimidating staff, but he never dominated Connally.
A love of wheeling-and-dealing is another area of commonality. Trump, of course, defines his public persona in terms of purported mastery of the art of the deal, something for which Connally was also renowned. You could even say that it was one of his great passions. In the words of a 1979 Texas Monthly profile by journalist Paul Burka, “Connally regards negotiating the way some men view hunting or tennis: he does it for sport.”
Nationalism, particularly economic nationalism, is also a shared trait. Trump’s contention that America has been regularly played for a sucker in trade deals is something that Connally would surely have endorsed. As he himself once put it, “My view is that the foreigners are out to screw us, and therefore it’s our job to screw them first.”
And you can readily imagine Trump nodding in vigorous agreement to this Connolly declaration of independence from international opinion: “I don’t care if they like me. I’m running for president of the United States, not president of the world.”
There’s also a sense in which both men could be viewed as out of place in the Republican Party. Many activists and conservatives see Trump as a usurper, someone who doesn’t share their limited government principles and has hijacked their beloved party for his own purpose. Connally, too, was a bit of a misfit.
At bottom, it comes down to the appropriate role of government. Trump has no philosophical objection to big government and neither did Connally. As a means to an end, government is simply a tool to be deployed whenever it fits your purpose.
Still, there’s at least one key difference between the two men. Barring a miracle, Trump will become the 2016 Republican nominee. But despite a lavishly funded 1980 primary campaign, Connally never came close to lift-off. Mind you, he was up against Ronald Reagan.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.