The handwritten note lay in the bottom drawer of my old rolltop desk, one I bought for $50 in a junk store in Richmond, VA, 39 years ago.
“Dear Doug & Amy,” it read. “Thanks for dinner and for listening.” The signature was a bold “John” and the letterhead on the note simply said “John B. Connally” and was dated July 14, 1982.
I met John Connally on a TWA flight from Kansas City to Albuquerque earlier that year. The former governor of Texas, the man who took one of the bullets from the assassination that killed President John F. Kenney, was headed to Santa Fe to buy a house.
The meeting wasn’t an accident. The flight originated in Washington and I sat in the front row of the coach cabin. During a stop in Kansas City, I saw Connolly get on the plane and settle into a first class seat so I walked off the plane and upgraded to a first class seat right ahead of the governor. I not only wanted to meet the man who was with Kennedy on that day in Dallas in 1963 but, as the communications director for the re-election campaign of Congressman Manuel Lujan of New Mexico, I thought he might be willing to help out on what was a tough campaign.
When the plane was in the air, I introduced myself and said I was working on Lujan’s campaign. Connolly’s face lit up and he invited me to move to the empty seat next to him.
“How is Manuel? Is there anything I can do to help?”
By the time we landed in Albuquerque, Connolly had agreed to do a fundraiser for Lujan. A month later, he flew back into New Mexico where Amy and I picked him up for the fundraiser. Afterwards, we took him to dinner.
Connolly was both gracious and charming and told us many stories about Texas politics. As the evening wore on and the multiple bourbon and branch waters took their effect, he started talking about November 22, 1963, in Dallas.
“You know I was one of the ones who advised Kennedy to stay away from Texas,” Connally said. “Lyndon (Johnson) was being a real asshole about the whole thing and insisted.”
Connally’s mood darkened as he talked about Dallas. When the bullet hit him, he said he felt like he had been kicked in the ribs and couldn’t breathe. He spoke kindly of Jackie Kennedy and said he admired both her bravery and composure.
I had to ask. Did he think Lee Harvey Oswald fired the gun that killed Kennedy?
“Absolutely not,” Connally said. “I do not, for one second, believe the conclusions of the Warren Commission.”
So why not speak out?
“Because I love this country and we needed closure at the time. I will never speak out publicly about what I believe.”
We took him back to catch a late flight to Texas. He shook my hand, kissed Amy on the cheek and walked up the ramp to the plane.
We saw Connally and his wife a couple of more times when they came to New Mexico but he sold his house a few years later as part of a bankruptcy settlement. He died in 1993 and, I believe, never spoke publicly about how he doubted the findings of the Warren Commission.
Connnolly’s note serves as yet another reminder that in our Democratic Republic, or what’s left of it, few things are seldom as they seem. Like him, I never accepted the findings of the Warren Commission. Too many illogical conclusions.
John Kennedy’s death, and the doubts that surround it to this day, marked the beginning of the end of America’s idealism. The cynicism grew with the lies of Vietnam and the senseless deaths of too many thousands of young Americans in a war that never should have been fought. Doubts about the integrity of those we elect as our leaders festers today as this country finds itself embroiled in another senseless war based on too many lies.
John Connally felt he served his country best by concealing his doubts about the Warren Commission’s whitewash but his silence may have contributed to the growing perception that our elected leaders can rewrite history to fit their political agendas.
Had Connally spoken out, as a high-ranking political figure with doubts about the “official” version of what happened, it might have sent a signal that Americans deserve the truth from their government, even when that truth hurts.