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John Connally was a politician who valued ruthlessness

John Connally seemed to be enjoying his dying day. While many mourned, there he was on C-SPAN holding forth in a 1991 interview that ranged as far and wide as his native state.

It's hard to name many living Americans so intimate with the halls of power in the 1960s. Connally took a bullet intended for President Kennedy (or shared a bullet; choose your theory). He was Lyndon Johnson's soulmate. He was in Richard Nixon's Cabinet. He was Texas governor. His life story was Texas' story, from boom to bust.

Connally was a political cross-dresser who looked distinguished either way.

He was a hardball player who told Bobby Kennedy to scram when Kennedy demanded that Johnson reconsider his decision to be John Kennedy's running mate.

He was a super-hawk on the Vietnam War, perched on Johnson's right shoulder telling him to use any means necessary to win, even the A-bomb.

He became Nixon's treasury secretary, but only after advising that such a nomination would hurt the feelings of a climber from Texas named George Bush who so wanted on Nixon's team. And why don't you make him ambassador to the United Nations? 'Nuff said, Big John.

At that time, mind you, Connally was a Democrat. The relationship sounds kinky only to those who didn't know Connally's bedrock conservatism.

When he ran for president in 1980 as a Republican it was a natural fit. Connally's only problem (aside from having escaped a 1974 bribery conviction by the skin of his teeth) was that Ronald Reagan fit better.

Unquestionably, Connally believed he had what it took to be president. In his C-SPAN interview he shed light on just what that was.

Connally said that a president must be "ruthless" _ cold-blooded when it was necessary to accomplish his aims. Clearly, Lyndon Johnson met Connally's definition of ruthless _ a calculating political animal who could and would let heads roll if in the national interest.

By contrast, although he liked Hubert Humphrey personally, Connally said Humprhey was not suited for the presidency. Too nice. "He couldn't say no," said Connally.

Indeed, Connally believed even Johnson was too soft-hearted for his own good, as when LBJ refused to fire the Cabinet he had inherited from Kennedy. Connally believed that lack of loyalty in the Cabinet _ some members still hoping for a Kennedy's triumphant return _ hurt Johnson's administration.

LBJ too soft? Or too ruthless? Hearing Connally speak reminds us of the fallibility of each president of recent times, and the fallibility of the current president.

Ruthlessness as a requirement? Maybe, but Nixon's presidency was destroyed by his ruthlessness, paranoia and political bloodlust. His scandal left Gerald Ford a lame duck. Good-guy Jimmy Carter was undercut by his fixation with details. Ronald Reagan undercut future generations by being oblivious to details.

George Bush? A presidency with no direction. Bill Clinton? Right now, a presidency with too many directions.

One could imagine Connally mocking Bill Clinton as a Humphrey with good hair _ showing slight inclination to say no to interest groups and to everyone who wants something from government.

Going down the roll since LBJ, it is clear that each president had major failings or liabilities. By focusing chiefly on those failings we are simply acknowledging a system that is as imperfect as the people it represents.

We are always waiting around for a political messiah. What we need is not a messiah but a body of leaders, supported by public-spirited citizens, who share a sense of what's best for them as a nation rather than as provincial interests.

John Young is editorial page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Cox News Service