BRIAN LAMB, HOST: James Reston Jr., author of "The Lone Star: The Life of John Connally." Why did you pick this man to write about?
JAMES RESTON, AUTHOR, "THE LONE STAR: THE LIFE OF JOHN CONNALLY": Well, it was really picked for me, that is the truthful answer in the whole thing. There was another subject in mind and that just didn't work out for other reasons and we waited around for two to three months ... this was back in October of 1986, and that was when the stories appeared of John Connally falling from grace with his horrendous bankruptcy difficulties, and that seemed to have this sort of Shakespearian or Grecian quality to it -- A man who had been so big and high in American powerful circles, had fallen so far, so fast and, you know, a biographer always looks for this kind of dimension in a subject.
LAMB: Picked for you? ... Harper and Row picked the subject?
RESTON: Well, there is always a dialogue that goes on between a publisher and an author. We had essentially agreed to do another subject, which I will confess to you, was Jesse Helms because I had taught at the University of North Carolina for ten years, so Helms made sense. And then it turned out that there was a book on Helms coming out, so we had to search around, so John Connally is probably not pleased to know that he is a substitute for Jesse Helms in this case.
LAMB: How much did he cooperate with you on this?
RESTON: Absolutely none at all, zero.
LAMB: Did not talk to you at all?
RESTON: Well, I talked to him twice actually. I talked to him reasonably near to the beginning of the whole project. I went down and spent an hour with him in Houston and then I saw him again at the back of a room in an auction in Houston in January of 1988. Those are the only two times.
LAMB: Here is what this book looks like in your book stores, starting November 1st, hard back, thick ... how many pages?
RESTON: 620 or 30, something like that.
LAMB: Where is John Connally today?
RESTON: Well, he is probably in an arm chair at Pecosa Ranch in South Texas, reading the book that you got in your hands. I think that this is an extraordinary aspect of this ... that this is totally independent work, that he had no influence over and he had no control over and for somebody who has no control over a massive work like this, for it simply to appear in the local book store and for him to sit down and read about his life, you know ... from an independence stand point, that must be an extraordinary experience.
LAMB: What do you think that he will really think when he reads this?
RESTON: Well, you see, people never look at themselves the way that others look at them, and here is a man who was really larger than life, who had extraordinary achievements who came just as close, a hair's breadth to being president of the United States and who never seemed to have a loss of confidence in himself. Obviously he had a very grand view of himself and this is a book which presents all of those achievements and gives full scope to them but also lays out his faults which, in many cases, are rather large. So I think you or I would also be, perhaps flattered through some of it and probably outraged and angry through others.
LAMB: How much money does he have today?
RESTON: He has got a lot more than you might think. He was recently here in Washington giving a dinner party in his suite Willard Hotel for old political acquaintances, so I do not think we need to weep over the finances of John Connally right now.
LAMB: When he went bankrupt, what was the date on that?
RESTON: That was early September of 1987.
LAMB: And how much had he lost at that point?
RESTON: Well, it is like the Federal Budget. The figure was so high, that it is hard for you or I to have any grasp of it. Some said $61 million he was in debt. Other figures for the company were as high as $90 and $100 million and those were considered low, so who knows ... I don't know.
LAMB: What has he done since bankruptcy?
RESTON: Well, I am not really sure what he has done ... They tell me in Texas that he is on his way back and he has got offers and he is active in a business sense. I think that is probably true. He is, by nature, a worker and he is not a person to retire and frankly that is the nice aspect, if there is a nice aspect, of the whole sad tale at the end, where he goes bankrupt, that he could have just sat back and become an elder statesman but by nature he was an activist and so he needed to get out there and he saw an opportunity for making a lot of money for Texas business and he went for it and he gets really quite high marks for that in Texas.
LAMB: You say in the book that probably the most painful thing in his life was the suicide of his daughter. Maybe it is not called a suicide, but will you tell us that story?
RESTON: Well, this is a heart-rending story. It is really a story of the 1950s where there was the problem for fancy families of people eloping at an early age and it was not like the current problems with drugs and all of that. And John Connally's daughter, the one in question here, looked very much like him and she was kind of the apple of his eye and he doted upon her. And she fell into this relationship in high school with a local boy and they eloped at a very early age ... I think she was 16. And then went over in Oklahoma, got married and went off to Tallahassee, Florida. In Tallahassee, she discovered that she was pregnant and they started a fight -- classic adolescence lover's fights and the relationship started to go down and down and she walked out on this young boy several times. Through this whole period, John Connally was a Forth Worth business man and he tried to sort of help in all of this and ...
LAMB: I am sorry ... is she in this picture?
RESTON: That was taken afterwards. This was in the 50s and that's is a governorship picture.
LAMB: I interrupted you right at the moment you were going to say what happened, I apologize.
RESTON: Well, that's OK, because it is almost a story one doesn't want to give voice to but a biographer has to ... What happened was that she walked out, the boy looked all over Tallahassee for her. He came back to the apartment and the child was sitting on her couch with a shotgun to her head and he tried to argue her out of it. He was terribly distraught and after a few minutes, lunged at the weapon and the weapon went off and she was killed and there was then an autopsy and a hearing about the thing which Connally came, but he has always referred to this as the most tragic element of his life and it is tragic.
LAMB: Again, that date, when that happened was ...?
RESTON: This was in 1958.
LAMB: There is a lot in this book to talk about. A lot we won't get to talk about in our discussion. How did you research it?
RESTON: Well, I think any solid self respecting biography has to start at the great libraries that have materials in it. I suppose most important to me in this whole book was the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. But I also spent time at the JFK Library because of the assassination, of course and at the Nixon Project, here in Alexandria, Virginia, was terribly important because of Connally's time with Nixon and lastly the National Archives because Connally had this extraordinary bribery trial for which he was a credit and all of those documents are in the National Archives.
Then, once you get the solid primary research under your belt, then I started to move out and talk to people. But if you are trying to tell, in effect, 40 years of American political history through the life of one man, especially the earlier history, people's memories by this time start to fade a bit, so one has to be very careful in the interviewing process.
LAMB: The reason that I ask you that, is that in the back, something that you don't often find, you have notes and each chapter has a number and following that you have a lot of notes of where your research came from and I want to ask you, before we get started on some of this, to take about ... on page 662, under paying debts ... that is chapter 26, I believe. Star Dust ... it is a long explanation of how an attempt was made to prevent you from getting some valuable papers. Do you know what I am talking about?
RESTON: Yes...I assume...
LAMB: Can you tell us the story on that?
RESTON: Well, let me first address the whole thing of notes. Because this was an independent biography, not the so-called "authorized biography" or the "unauthorized biography" -- I mean it is unauthorized, but we always tend to think of the unauthorized biography is something that sets out to gut, slash and trash the figure, the Kitty Kelly/Frank Sinatra book is always the one that is sort of used, this is not that kind of book.
Nevertheless, I was quite sure that there would be attempts, probably by Connally intimates and perhaps by Connally himself to attack the book, to attack the research in the book and try to undermine it. And for that reason, I spent a great deal of time on the biographers notes which ended up being 100 pages or so in typescript. And the one that you are referring to, there is an explanation of one -- but not the only -- episode where Connally attempted to put every block in my way to prevent this book from being written. And the paying debts business has to do with the way in which his papers were delivered the to LBJ Library, right in the same time frame as his bankruptcy and I came to believe that he had only donated these papers to the LBJ Library because he wanted to protect them, because they are valuable, from his creditors and out of that ensuing struggle, it was a rather novel, legal problem. because never before had a major gift of personal papers been made to a Presidential Library in connection with a bankruptcy.
When all the creditors are out there looking for every single thing of value in the bankrupt person's possession and these papers were estimated to be worth three or four million dollars. So, Connally, I like to think of it "in the dead of the night" threw all of these papers off onto the dock of the LBJ Library and then when the gift was given to the LBJ Library, he put a five year restriction on access to it, which I always came to refer to as the "Jim Reston Restriction". He was giving the history but preventing the only historian working on him to having access to it.
LAMB: What was the time frame on this gift?
RESTON: Well, it was right in there in the September, October period of 1987 when his bankruptcy was declared and when the creditors committees were being organized and all of that.
LAMB: There are some familiar names in your note here. Texas politicians ..."Meanwhile, the author complained ..." -- meaning you -- "... complained to the Attorney General of Texas, Jim Maddox and a controller of Texas, Bob Bullock, since the state of Texas through Connally's gigantic tax liability was a major Connally creditor." And you go on to suggest: "But Maddox and Bullock met and made a cold political decision." What was that decision?
RESTON: Well, this is the classic, old boy network that you find in almost any state in the United States where the political establishment tends to protect one of their own and even though Maddox is a Democrat and there were others who were players in the whole thing and Connally is technically a Republican, they saw him as one of theirs who was down and here was this outside author who was coming in trying to get access and even though the law was completely on my side and on the side of the Achivus who wanted these papers, the legal establishment protected Connally.
LAMB: What do you think is in those papers and when will the public see them?
RESTON: Well, I don't over estimate the value of those papers. I don't think that Connally was a very good letter writer, unlike Lyndon Johnson for example, who was a wonderful letter writer. Connally, in print, was kind of a reflection of his grand and cold, almost arrogant at times personality, so a warmth does not come through in his written material. Inevitably, there are going to be nuggets and I would have liked to have had those nuggets but I don't feel as if the book is in anyway harmed by me not having access to them.
LAMB: How much new information, and that is not a fair question because I am sure there is a lot -- but you see reference in the publicity to this that there is new information and you wrote a chapter that was published some time ago in Time Magazine about a theory that you uncovered about the assassination. And first of all, why would you take a chapter out of context and throw it in Time Magazine and when did this happen?
RESTON: Well, let me turn it back around, if you don't mind. Any time that you spend two and one half years on one life, especially one life where the papers are not all brought together in any structured way, you have to search for nuggets all over the place, you are inevitably going to turn up a whole boat load of new information and I would say, humbly, that this has got an extraordinary amount of fresh and new information in it.
What you are talking about are the three chapters that I wrote with the book to the Dallas assassination, which Time Magazine bought the rights to and compressed and then made it into it's cover story, as it were as the 25th anniversary of the Dallas assassination. And what I am arguing in here is that it was John Connally, not JFK who was Lee Harvey Oswald's prime target. Now, let me give you a bit of background on that. Virtually everybody who has ever looked at the Kennedy assassination and there are hundreds of them, have always approached it from the stand point of the president -- from John F. Kennedy -- and have looked at the relationship such as it was, I mean there was no relationship, but looked at it as Oswald v. Kennedy.
By me coming in, focusing on Connally, it turned out to be a totally fresh angle on the whole thing and it lead me very quickly into the whole murky, in fact the greatest void that exists in the Warren Commission in my opinion and that is the motivation of Lee Harvey Oswald, to become an assassin. It never made sense to me that this wretched little man who had a 9th grade education and who could scarcely put one word together after another, could have this sort of grand theory to assassin a President of the United States which would throw the world into chaos. It is kind of a 19th Century syndicalist or anarchist argument that Leon Trotsky or his counter part in the anarchy movement might make it an intellectuals argument and that did not square in any fundamental sense in my view with the kind of wretched little character that Lee Harvey Oswald was. There had to be something direct and emotional to move this man to murder.
What I was able to discover was that there was between Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Connally, a grudge. A grudge on Oswald's part that went back to the discharge that he had received from the Marine Corp. Now, there is only one thing that Lee Harvey Oswald ever did of any significance in his life and that was to survive three years in the Marine Corp. And he had this honorable discharge in his wallet. It was a thing of great pride to him. When he went to Russia for two years, the Marine Corp, which is a Navy Department organization, looked at this apparent defection on Lee Harvey Oswald's part and in an administrative procedure without any argument being given by Oswald, his family or anyone else, they similarly changed this from an Honorable discharge to an Undesirable discharge.
Now, I am a product of the Vietnam generation and I know from my own generation, how many people suffered who were dissidents from the Vietnam war who were given Undesirable and Dishonorable discharges from the Military. They were usually working class people and it haunted them all of their life and it turned them into bitter, bitter people, so I think that is where the inspiration came for me to understand Oswald's bitterness at having this thing changed. He knew it was going to haunt him if he tried to get a job in the United States. At any rate, in Russia, learning about this, he writes a letter to the Navy Secretary who he believes to be John Connally of Texas and from Fort Worth, his own home town and what Oswald gets back from Connally is the classic bureaucratic brush off and it comes to him because Connally has actually now left the Navy Department and is running for Governor of Texas. This bureaucratic brush off comes to Oswald in Russia, in an envelope that says, with a smiling face, "John Connally for Governor."
Now, it is my view, that that began the grudge for Oswald and that Connally and the name Connally came to represent for him, the kind of facelessness and insensitivity, all of the U.S. Government.
LAMB: Your chapter on this, or the three chapters that were condensed in the Time Magazine piece, now a year old, did you have any reaction when it first came out, from politicians and all?
LAMB: You know, the Kennedy assassination is like holding Nitroglycerin in your hand. It's explosive, people explode in a way on this subject, like almost nothing else in this century and I really expected that people would come out of the wood work from all over to try to knock this theory down. What, to my surprise and delight, I got, almost uniformly, were not all together convinced, but this is very plausible and I never understood why Oswald, being who he was, would have such a grievance to become a murder of John F. Kennedy. Because as I lay out the book, Oswald was really quite admiring of John F. Kennedy and Marina Oswald doted on him and on Jackie and so it just did not make sense in emotional terms that such a character as this would turn to such anger that it would turn into the impulse to murder.
LAMB: Should I take it from reading your book that you are not a big fan of the Warren Commission?
RESTON: Well, I am a fan of the Warren Commission on everything except the motivation of Lee Harvey Oswald. This is the great void in the Warren Commission. You have to understand that the people who were on the Warren Commission where the global thinkers, Allen Douglas, Gerald Ford, Earl Warren -- Washington figures who would understand these sort of cosmic, political arguments that a demented mind might use toward murder and violence but they did not understand the illiterate, angry, demented character like Oswald and really made no particular effort to understand that and that psychology.
LAMB: This is the book, the author is James Reston, Jr. who is our guest. It is new in your book stores and the subject is obviously John Connally. How many books does this make for James Reston, Jr?
RESTON: This is the 7th.
LAMB: How many of those fiction and how many of those non-fiction.
RESTON: Two novels, five non-fiction.
LAMB: What do you enjoy the most?
RESTON: Well, there is a certain reality in today's publishing, especially for a family
man, non-fiction has a better chance for success and for continuing the writer's life...
RESTON: Non-fiction, but ...
LAMB: Why is that?
RESTON: Well, I think because novels are a totally unknown quality and even established novelists can stub their toe and it can be a disaster. I wrote two rather forgettable novels and while the form fiction interests me, I doubt that I could get Harper and Row to support me on another flier. But I think that I am very well served in this biography for having written fiction, because biography, in a way, combines everything that I have done. It combines the impulse of the novelist to look to drama and to look to character development and to be very attentive to dialogue. I was all over those things in writing this biography. I have written several plays and something like the Dallas assassination, for example, from a theatrical stand point, well there is nothing else like it and John Connally was a very theatrical figure. I have also done journalism and I have done scholarship and all of these things get brought together in the form of biography.
LAMB: Can you tell us who these people are?
RESTON: That is my mother and father.
LAMB: Why did you use initials?
RESTON: Well, until you asked, it was sort of an attempt of the author for it to be a rather private moment. For some reason, that just ascetically felt better than to say for my mother and father.
LAMB: And you have never done that before?
RESTON: Never have, I have been waiting for the right book and I think that this is the right book.
LAMB: And the names -- JBR stands for?
RESTON: My father...
LAMB: James ...?
RESTON: James Barrett Reston
LAMB: And SFR?
RESTON: Sarah Fulton Reston.
LAMB: And they are where?
RESTON: They are here in Washington.
LAMB: When did you first think that you wanted to be a writer?
RESTON: Well, my father is also a writer, but a newspaper man, I guess I shouldn't say "but," I should say, "and a newspaper man" and so I am sure when I was growing up, my whole up bringing was informed by that wonderful experience for a youngster to have that sense of men and women of words around you.
LAMB: Is your mother a writer?
RESTON: She has written, yes and in some ways to the novelist or to the biographer, my mother is almost a better influence than my father. My father was a great influence on me for politics and history, but my mother was a great influence on me for character and for humor and for emotional matters, of course everybody's mother is that way, I suppose. But I don't think that I ever really intended to be a book writer until I was in the Army in 1960s during the Vietnam period and I started a novel and I had never written fiction before, never really had read much fiction frankly. It was out of that when that novel ended up a long time later being published.
LAMB: You grew up here in Washington?
LAMB: Went to college?
RESTON: At the University of North Carolina.
LAMB: And taught ...
RESTON: And ended up teaching creative writing there ...
LAMB: And you stopped teaching?
RESTON: In 1981. That was the classic thing, you know. I think one grows out of teaching writing after a while and many of us writers do teach it particularly in the early part of our career because we have to make a living. I was well served by being in Chapel Hill for 10 years where there was a wonderful literary community. Mainly fiction writers, but I was ready to leave it and I wanted to see if I could, as people often say to me, "What are you doing, just writing now?" and I have been just writing and wanted to see whether I could made a living doing that exclusively.
LAMB: The last book was a book called "Sherman's March in Vietnam" which came out of the Southern experience where I have always been interested in villains and heros and figures. Connally falls into this category, who are intensely heroic to some people and intensely villainous to others. General Sherman is an icon for the south and I was very anxious to see the way in which the modern south still felt emotionally about him. So what I did for the New Yorker, was to retrace the steps of Sherman's march across the south. I went back and forth between what the real history was about Sherman and the way in which Sherman was memorialized. This then became lengthened to book length as a sort of allegory of history, if you will.
LAMB: You next book?
RESTON: Well, I am doing a book on Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti at the moment, and ...
LAMB: When did you start that?
RESTON: About four months ago. My publisher, Harper and Row, very nicely said to me, "Well, lets, after this long process, where you have been" ... to change the metaphor ..."been deep in the well for 2 years, why don't you come out and do something that is a little more frivolous" ...as it were. And this has turned out to be not quite as frivolous as it ended up being, with the death of Bart Giamatti, it has become an emotional story and a textured story that it wasn't when I first took it on.
LAMB: When is it on the market?
RESTON: Oh, it will take me at least a year or more to do.
LAMB: Is this a point in your life where you are comfortable being a writer and making enough money to do that and that only?
RESTON: Well, it has always been what I wanted. I have always been comfortable in being a writer, even if my family did not have anything to eat (laughing), so there were never any doubts that books would be the center of my existence. So, I have this wonderful home now at Harper and Row which is not so easily accomplished in today's publishing world and I was very, very keen to get cracking on another book and be well into the research by the time that this one came out.
I would have to confess to you that before, the publication process has always paralyzed me. You know, you wait for two to three months before the book comes out ... you can't do anything and then when the book comes out and you wait for the reviews and you wait for the television people to attack you, you see and the destiny and the fate of the book really is not in for six to eight months, so if you give yourself over to this kind of paralysis it can be a really quite a large block of time.
LAMB: We are talking about this book about John Connally, and you mentioned earlier, this is the only book being written about John Connally or is there any other book like it?
LAMB: Any other book ... what I meant by that, any other book, solely devoted to John Connally, and his life?
RESTON: There were two books written in the early 70s when he was a potential presidential candidate but of course that is not biography, that's current affairs, sort of newspaper articles written at length and one of them was kind of a Vanity Press thing that was very positive to Connally and the other was out to undermine his chances to be President. This is a classic biography that is not controlled by Connally and it is not out to undermine his stature. I would have to say this that I don't think I am going to be given much credit on this point but it is a fact that very rarely do classic biographies like this get written about men who are still alive, or women. Because the problem in today's world with money, for example, are you going to pay the subject or are you not going to pay. And antagonism and legality and libel and so on are so daunting that very rarely does this happen and I know now why that is true.
LAMB: I want to ask you, this is really out of context, to tell a story in this book, and I don't know why this jumped out in me, I suppose it is because of the year we have had in Washington with ethics, the story about the Sid Richardson, first you have to tell who he is -- that Sid Richardson owned this place out in California, this motel or hotel, what ever it was --that J. Edgar Hoover used to go to and what popped out on the page at me, was, I don't know what year it was, that trips out there, that Richardson paid for, supposedly, netted J. Edgar Hoover, $19,000 in bennies. How do you know that and tell us a little bit about Sid Richardson, I know you can talk about him for an hour, but who was he and is that a true story and how did you find out?
RESTON: Well, we talking before about the novelist sensibility being brought to biography and I am very keen on scenes and I am very keen on characters and there is much about this biography that is pre-Watergate ethics. John Connally, after all, grew up in the backroom, political scene of Lyndon Johnson in the 1940s and that was not dominated by post-Watergate ethics. I can promise you that, so his grounding and his roots lie in old time Texas politics.
So after Lyndon Johnson -- in that most disputed and I believe stole an election of 1948 which Connally was the champaign manager for -- Connally left Johnson and went to work for Sid Richardson who was an oil magnate of Texas. Your classic wildcatter, independent, wildcatter, who nobody could even estimate, not even Sid Richardson, how much money he had and calmly became his sort of glamour boy and his up front man and lobbyist. Anyway, Sid Richardson, during the hot months of the summer, always spent time in California at a place in Lahoya, at a little hotel. John Connally used to go out there and it was also a place that lured, as you said, very odd collection of Washington figures like J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon and Hollywood types -- Elizabeth Taylor, scientists like Edward Teller and Mafia people because it was close to the race track which Sid Richardson loved there in Lahoya.
And I was able to establish that J. Edgar Hoover went out there during the 50s every summer and he would be given a free room and he would just operate from there. He would be given a free room and it amounted over a period of five to six summers to $19,000 in effect, free, in kind services, totally unethical, totally illegal and so on. How did I find that? I talked to the manager of the hotel.
LAMB: Still there, the hotel?
LAMB: Page 117 -- And I guess the reason why this was interesting was based on the period that this was said by John Connally, which I think was around 1948 around there, and you can tell us in a second. Compared against the last couple of years of what has been going in this town, John Connally, supposedly, I think, says this to Lyndon Johnson, his friend, "Congressman, I have just become convinced in my own mind, that more than ever before, everyone is money mad. The whole approach to everything is extremely selfish and greedy. I believe that to be true, assuming it to be true, that fact alone is your greatest weakness. It is not only your greatest weakness but the greatest weakness of our Government." When was that said and am I right here in putting that in context?
RESTON: That is a letter that I found in the LBJ library. It is very revealing, isn't it? It is really a watership moment for John Connally in his political life and in his ethical life, I think, where he understands the connection between politics and money and has to decide whether he is going to fall in ... in which money is illegally and unethically used in politics or whether he is going to reject it. Well, I think the truth is he didn't reject it, he accepted that that was the way it was, because he certainly, in later life, you know, lived within that system.
LAMB: And that was in 1946 or 48?
RESTON: That's right.
LAMB: "I have become convinced in my own mind more than ever before, that everyone is money mad." Now, what happened in the last 40 years in this country?
RESTON: Yes, and what happened to John Connally at the end of his life, that is precisely what happened to him. He became money mad, you know. He had been in and out of politics and government all of his life and he lost, really was humiliated in the presidential election in 1980 or the presidential primaries by Ronald Reagan, will also ran and he said, “That's it, I mean, my political career is over but I am still reasonably young and I have got a lot of energy and I am going to go back and I am going to become Texas rich.” And he just gave himself over to making millions and millions of dollars so, it is almost sort of an impulse to become on the same level with all those moneyed peopled like Sid Richardson, that he had known all of his life but he had never really quite been as rich as they had.
LAMB: If you had the opportunity to spend an evening with John Connally, do you think you enjoy it?
RESTON: No, I think it would be very rough and I think he was extraordinarily foolish in relation to this project and his foolishness, I think, was something that I had to kind of put out of my mind because it had the potential to lower him in my estimation and I did not want that to be the case. If you spend all this time on one figure, you want to like him. You want to think that this is a worthy person to write about and he was so silly in relation to me that he built up this kind of hostility, I think, and it would take, I think, many such hours to lance the hostility that he has built up in his own mind.
LAMB: How do you know that he is that hostile to you?
RESTON: Well, you can feel it if you do a book like this. You know, I wrote him a number of letters, he never responded, except to one. He was quite sharp with me at an auction in Houston when I saw him at the back of the room and, you know, his just whole demeanor from him and through his friends made that reasonably clear.
LAMB: Who are his closest friends today?
RESTON: Well, there are two or three. The one that you would probably know the best is George Christian who was press secretary to Connally first and then to Lyndon Johnson in the White House here and George Christian is a public relations man in Austin. George Christian did talk to me on substance and I understood that they were caught between things here. On the one hand they thought that Connally was being silly and they tried in their own way to turn him around, to get him to talk to me and on the other hand, they did not want to violate his friendship and his trust and so on, so forth...and so they were sort of caught in the middle. I would have to say that this is not an experience that only existed for me.
You know, there is this well-known biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro and the same debate amongst the Lyndon Johnson codiere existed toward Caro has existed for me in the Connally codiere with this book. Should I talk to Reston or shouldn't I talk to him? You know, he is a serious writer and he seems to be doing a good job, but Caro, some of whom would say went against some of his confidences and so on. And so it is a touchy argument in a way and some of whom worked with me and some didn't.
LAMB: Including the index, I see 691 pages, somewhere in here I read, somebody is quoted as saying, "The problem with John Connally is he didn't" -- you probably remember this -- "... didn't like people."
RESTON: I think what you are referring to is this fellow, former representative Jim Jones, who ran for, ran but lost for the chairman of the Democratic party.
LAMB: At the American stock exchange, right now, Jim Jones, yeah...
RESTON: He was making the comment that because Jim Jones worked for Lyndon Johnson that he saw how much Lyndon Johnson loved to get in with the people, particularly with poor people, I mean, he understood them, he related to them and he was warm towards them, whereas John Connally was very, very uncomfortable and his sort of grand presentation, you know, as it were, came off as very arrogant and Jim Jones was remarking to his fiance at that time that this was the classic difference between Lyndon Johnson and John Connally and it did not bode well for the future of John Connally as a Democrat because no good Democrat can feel very uncomfortable around people who are down and out and have much of a future.
LAMB: This is also another year where two Texans had been in the spot light, John Tower and Jim Wright, and neither one of them made out very well this year. What is it about Texans, or is there anything about Texans that gets them into these kind of situations?
RESTON: Well, I don't necessarily want to leap to the construction that a lot of people do that Texas is more fast and loose than the rest of the country. There certainly are some very, very flamboyant people who exist down there and that was from the standpoint of the biographer, wonderful, because, you know, flamboyant characters make for good subjects and good reading, but it is not only the John Tower and the Jim Wright kind of situation but really much more significantly, it is this whole savings and loan disaster that we have in this country which really had its roots in Texas and it had its roots in the fast and loose practices of Texas financiers -- the high fliers, they were called.
And this is one more way in which the bankruptcy of John Connally is symptomatic of Texas, that he is the personification of Texas, both in its political life and in the end of its disastrous financial life because his friends were the most notorious bankers who have become the villains of the Savings and Loan scandal.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the savings and loan thing, because I think that it is another thing that surprised me when I read it, that you have a date, I think of about 1970 and the name I remember reading was the Jake "the snake" Jacobson ...
RESTON: Yes ...
LAMB: And that the whole savings and loan thing started there? That long ago?
RESTON: Well, Jake Jacobson, was, you'll remember, the great accuser of Connally in his bribery trial ...
LAMB: By the way, I used "the snake" because that is what you have got in your book, where did the snake ...?
RESTON: Well, that was an appellation that was put upon him but later, when I think when he became Connally's accuser. I like Jake Jacobson, Jake Jacobson, I think, has got a lot of substance to him.
LAMB: Where is he today?
RESTON: He is in Austin.
LAMB: Did he talk to you?
RESTON: He did, at great length. But, Jake Jacobson's difficulties -- he later went bankrupt -- and his difficulties with bankruptcy in the end was what turned him into Connally's accuser but that is another complicated story.
LAMB: That was the whole milk scandal?
RESTON: That is right. When Jacobson left the Johnson White House, he became an officer of several savings and loans in Texas, and you had, in 1970 the roots, the seeds of the savings and loan scandal that we have today. You know people, like Jacobson, got into phony appraisals of land and bought up things when they did not have proper credit and it was just paper, paper things and that is when the mudsill of the oil industry crumbled, you know. All of these fast and loose practices became very apparent.
LAMB: The milk scandal, the trial, Edward Bennett Williams, the attorney, who is deceased. Did John Connally take money from the milk producers.
RESTON: Well, let me just say this -- that biographers are not judges and they are not juries and a biography is not a trial in a court of law and this is not ... I have no standing and would not say anyway whether John Connally was innocent of a legal charge, that is not my job. What the biographer tends to do is to read everything that you possibly can about a legal event and 10 or 15 years after a legal event, in my case, I had access to an enormous amount of material that the jury did not hear, because that whole trial record and the prosecutors notes, the internal documents of the Watergate Special Prosecutors Office are open in the National Archives now, so I could know what was in the prosecution's case. I could know what they were doing and I talked to an attorney for Connally also. So, we have a much grander view of the thing and I think the best that I ... not the best, but I would like to say that there is a great deal of troubling information about Connally that is presented in the Watergate chapters of this book that the jury did not hear.
LAMB: One of the thoughts that I had as I read it and I want you to describe how this thing came about, was -- and this is kind of a leading question -- is this a good example of how the checks and balances in a town like this with cabinet officers, hearings processed on the hill? Because I remember Cliff Harden, who was the secretary of agriculture, you point out, was opposed to raising the price support on milk when President Nixon was in office and John Connally was a treasurer -- and I just kept saying to myself as I was reading it and again, he was acquitted, wasn't he? John Connally was acquitted of taking money, but now that I have jabbered on here, tell the story about the milk price support and how that all came about as kind of an instruction to us as how Government works.
RESTON: When somebody is acquitted in America, it says one thing very clearly. The state did not prove its case. We don't certify people as innocent in this country, we simply say, "he is not guilty" and presumed to be innocent, alright, but nobody is certified as being innocent, although that very term is what Connally then subsequently would say when this issue came up. Of the Presidential campaign of 1980, he would say, "I am the only candidate running for political office who has been certified as being innocent." Well, that is not true, no such thing took place.
What this had to do with was the price support for milk, where the United States Government tries to help farmers of America have a decent wage and have the job of being a farmer be equivalent to in what you can make to the rest of the economy. So we have these price supports so farmers can live in a decent way and we have a milk lobby in this country which represents the milk farmers, which is extremely powerful and was notorious in Washington for decadence as paying bribes and throwing its money around to scores if not hundreds of political candidates, to try to get them to smile upon having a higher milk subsidy.
Well, when Connally was secretary of the treasury for Richard Nixon, the conservative economists of the Nixon administration wanted a lower price support. They wanted the market to really work its way out as it should, the market values to operate, rather than to artificially support a high milk thing and the milk lobbyists, Jake Jacobson, specifically, who was the representative of the milk industry, came to Connally, his friend, who he had known for many years in Texas and had worked with him and asked Connally to be the spokesman within the Nixon administration for higher, rather than a lower milk support.
And Connally did that and did it very, very effectively and what was later alleged, was after the higher price support was announced as a turn around in the Nixon administration, that Jake Jacobson then went to Connally and Connally said, "You got a lot of money, I did a lot of good things for you, how about getting some of that money for me." In short, by Jacobson's account, soliciting a gratuity and it is further alleged that Jake Jacobson paid him or gave him $10,000 of milk money -- could be $15,000, there was some evidence that it was $15,000.00 -- as a gratuity.
LAMB: At that time, how much money did John Connally supposedly have?
RESTON: Well, this is a very important question, because, always, afterwards, in the treatment of this particularly by the Connally intimates, they would say, "Oh, Connally is a millionaire, what would he risk his career for $10,000. I mean that is absurd." "He is not that stupid,” they would say. Well, the salary for a cabinet member in 1971 was $60,000, so $10,000 was 1/6th of the annual salary, that is not an insignificant amount of money.
LAMB: But he did have wealth?
RESTON: Well, he had some wealth, but by Texas standards, certainly not great wealth. I think that he probably had more than a million dollars but probably not much more, so I don't take very seriously, that argument which is always the Connally apology that he did not need that kind of money and was too smart to risk his career for it.
LAMB: Who talked to you the most, that you can tell us, that was closest to John Connally?
RESTON: Well, of those who were close to him, I talked to Lady Bird Johnson and George Christian, I have mentioned.
LAMB: How long did you spend with Mrs. Johnson?
RESTON: About two hours.
LAMB: After that conversation what did you conclude?
RESTON: Well, I was very impressed with Mrs. Johnson, she is as she has been portrayed. She is a grand lady and I think that she was torn about talking to me. She did not know where I was coming from. I am sure that the Connally associates tried to dissuade her from talking to me, but after all, her job now, is really to be kind of the Queen Bee of the LBJ Library and I was a legitimate historian coming to do a serious piece of work so she couldn't very well refuse. But she was gracious and she was forthcoming as far as I could tell and I talked to her at length about the death of the Connally daughter, for example, which was a heart rending thing for her and so it was a thrilling moment for me, I enjoyed it immensely.
LAMB: There was an interesting scene in the book where you talked about Lady Bird Johnson wanting a family and a home in Washington and putting her foot down with her husband?
RESTON: Yes, well that is the story from the 40s and it is one of those stories which redones very nicely to John Connally's benefit because here Lyndon Johnson was haggling over a house and Lady Bird had been living from one house to another and out of suitcases for many, many years and she was just tired of it and she said as any good woman and wife would say, "I want this house and I want it right now." and Johnson came to Connally and said, "What do I do, I think I can get the guy down." and Connally said, "You better go out and get that house." so he knew when to be accommodating to a good wife.
LAMB: Is this the best book you have ever written?
RESTON: Yeah, I think it is. The whole form of biography fascinated me. One of the things that sustained me as I was having, as Connally would put these blocks in my way, was simply the form of biography because of these elements that it has, that go across the elements of other forms, of drama, of fiction, of journalism, of scholarship and so I think for someone with a novelist sensibility, but for a concern with the exactitude of the historian, this brought together the best qualities that I have to offer as a writer.
LAMB: Where did you physically write it?
RESTON: Most of it was written here in Washington and out in -- our family has got a little place out in the mountains of Virginia.
LAMB: What time of day do you like to write?
RESTON: Very early, but that has become more and more difficult as my children go off to elementary school.
LAMB: How big are your children, how many are there?
RESTON: They are 11, 9 and 7.
LAMB: See any writers in that group yet?
RESTON: Oh gracious, who do I really want to lay that on, the next generation ... I don't know ... My eldest daughter has an extraordinary emotional depth and my little nine year old boy is a terrific mimic and a great theatrical character so maybe that is where writing begins, I don't know.
LAMB: Has it made it easier or tougher on you that you had a father that was fairly well known and was a writer, although in newspapers?
RESTON: Well, there are real benefits to that and there are some very real liabilities to it. In the early part of my career as an author. It won't exactly say it was more of a liability than an attitude but the liability was greater than it is for me now. People, when you have a reasonably well known father, tend to view you as a clone and that is a real mistake on their part because it is very rarely that sons are clones of their father.
Many assumptions are made that you have an intensely political sensibility. My father is a political writer and political columnist. They assume that I know everything about politics, when, in fact, affairs of the heart, have been much more of interest to me throughout my whole career and it takes a lot more time to establish that with you audience if you have got that problem, but the great benefit of it is that, of course, you have been around people who have been in the word business all your life and if you grow up in a newspaper household, the virtue of skepticism, especially skepticism towards authority is very deeply ingrained from the early years and I think that is the most essentially important virtue for a good writer.
LAMB: You write a lot about the 40s, 50s and 60s and right on up. Is this Government any cleaner today than it was during that period ... you suggest in here that Lyndon Johnson may have stolen an election?
RESTON: It is really night and day.
LAMB: Which end?
RESTON: The ethics of today are far, far higher than they were back in the old days of backroom politics and it means, however, I would say, sadly that the political figures that we have today are less interesting. I would much, much rather write about John Connally or Lyndon Johnson than about George Bush and it means that you have these wild tales of Texas politics, particularly has always been wild and wooly and it is truly, well, it is another world and it's wonderful and flamboyant.
The ethic sensibility now has flattened a lot of that out for very good reasons...when Government is cleaner it is better, as an institution it is better. It does not mean that the people in it are better and I think that the Lyndon Johnson's and the John Connally's are in a way a dying breed.
LAMB: Is money as powerful today as it was in the 30s?
RESTON: It think that it is probably more important but it is not as personal. I mean that people have got to be a lot more careful about the way in which they give money to politicians and political causes. We are much more attuned to personal corruption now than we were then. We are not prepared to overlook personal corruption of the political vision of a man, like Lyndon Johnson, for example, has historic, cosmic consequences to it. I think that Lyndon Johnson was, in part, personally corrupt, but he did extraordinary things for this country on the domestic side and so that kind of balance, we used to be able to tolerate within one man and not destroy him. Lyndon Johnson certainly, if a lot of what I reveal in this book about him and of Connally were well known, they would be destroyed in their early career.
LAMB: Our guest has been James Reston Jr. This is the book, "The Lone Star: The Life of John Connally" Published by Harper and Row. Thank you Mr. Reston.
RESTON: Thank you.
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