Former Texas governor John Connally appeared in a Washington, D.C. federal court on Aug. 9, 1974 and pled not guilty to the charge of accepting an illegal cash payment to boost the price of milk.
Connally recovered from the near-fatal gunshot wound he suffered in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 and resumed his duties as chief executive of the Lone Star State. The scuttlebutt in 1966 was that he intended to run for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent John Tower, whose 1960 election was seen as a fluke by most Democrats, but he deferred to ally Waggoner Carr. Tower made short work of the attorney-general in the first of three successful reelection bids.
In 1968 Connally held a press conference to announce his third term as governor would be his last. He declined to discuss his plans for the future other than to reveal he was returning to Houston to practice law.
President Richard Nixon wanted a prominent Democrat as bipartisan window-dressing for his cabinet in 1971. He offered the position of treasury secretary to Connally, who accepted on one surprising condition.
Ben Barnes, a prized protégé of LBJ until the Sharpstown debacle left his career in shambles, served up a detailed account of the behind-the-scenes episode in his autobiography Burning Barns, Building Barns. According to Barnes, Connally told Nixon he could not accept unless the president found a place in his administration for George H.W. Bush. Supposedly that was how Bush the elder wound up ambassador to the United Nations and on the road to the White House.
Those members of the Nixon cabinet, who did not expect to hear a peep out of the token Democrat during their meetings, underestimated John Connally. Self-assured and politically astute, he was not the least bit shy about sharing his views on a wide range of topics.
To say the president was impressed by the Texan would be an understatement. Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, would later claim Nixon was “awed” by Connally with his expensive tailored suits and confident demeanor. The insecure president may have felt that the former Texas governor looked and acted more like a president than he did!
One day Connally took a phone call from a confidential contact in the Justice Department, who informed him that investigators had an old acquaintance of his dead to rights on charges stemming from his role in a San Angelo savings and loan scandal. The conversation concluded with a warning from the caller for the treasury secretary to steer clear of Jake Jacobsen.
Connally had known the Texas lawyer for decades and had no illusions about his character or the level to which he might stoop to make a buck. He was one of those influence peddling bottom feeders that prowl the halls of every state capitol and the corridors of Washington. He made a mental note to keep his distance from Jacobsen and did not give the matter a second thought.
To comply with federal election laws, Connally stepped aside as treasury secretary in early 1972 so that he could take charge of “Democrats for Nixon.” For Texas Democrats, even those as unhappy as Connally with the selection of George McGovern as their presidential candidate, this was the last straw.
Alarms should have gone off in Connally’s head, when he received a grand jury summons early in the summer of 1974. But he presumed there was no cause for concern since it had to be about Watergate or Jacobsen and he had nothing to do with either one.
It was not until the morning Connally arrived to testify that he found out he was the target of the grand jury probe. Upset, flustered and unprepared, he made numerous contradictory statements that seemed to confirm the prosecutors’ suspicions.
Desperate to avoid spending as much as 40 years behind bars, Jake Jacobsen had sold the feds on the preposterous idea he gave Connally a $10,000 bribe on behalf of milk producers, who sought higher price supports from the Nixon administration.
Eleven days before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974, that same grand jury indicted Connally on bribery, perjury and related charges. The case went to trial in April of the following year.
It all came down to whether the jury believed Jake Jacobsen, who hemmed and hawed on the witness stand, or John Connally, who was at his charming and persuasive best. Character witnesses like Barbara Jordan, Dean Rusk, Billy Graham and Lady Bird Johnson, who described the defendant’s reputation for honesty as “perfect,” definitely did not hurt. The not guilty verdict was almost a foregone conclusion.
With his wife Nellie at his side, John Connally walked out of the courtroom a free and vindicated man. What would he do next? Maybe run for president as a Republican now that he had switched parties?
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