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Looking back through John Connally’s eyes at the JFK shooting
By JIM WALLS
Nov. 22, 2013 — I was lunching on the patio of a South Carolina plantation house when John Connally started talking about the afternoon, 50 years ago today, when someone shot him in Dallas.
“Someone” is the proper word because Connally was never sure that Lee Harvey Oswald was the one who shot him. It’s no exaggeration to say that, as he explained his reasoning at lunch that day
, you could have heard a pin drop. The assembled journalists were hanging on his every word.
To back up a bit: Connally was running for president in 1980 when publisher Billy Morris brought reporters and opinion-writers from his newspapers in Georgia, Texas and Alaska together to interview him before primary season. The former Texas governor’s campaign would go on to spend $8 million that year to win one convention delegate (roughly what Cobb County taxpayers will wind up paying for each new job created by the Braves’ new stadium.) (That’s a joke, by the way.)
I was there with a columnist and the editor of The Savannah Morning News. Phil Kent, more recently a controversial choice to serve on Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, was there for the Augusta Chronicle. Perhaps 25 or 30 of us Morris serfs were present to greet Connally as his helicopter landed on the back 40 of Billy’s plantation.
The morning unfolded uneventfully as we gathered in Billy’s parlor to hear Connally field our questions. I can’t recall a single thing he said. Then we broke for lunch on the patio, where we chit-chatted in small groups as we were served at six or eight folding tables.
Soon the chit-chat subsided, though, as we realized someone had asked Connally about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One by one, reporters pulled out their spiral-bound notebooks so they could get it all down.
Connally, who’d been seated in the front seat of Kennedy’s car when the shots were fired, was struck in the chest, wrist and thigh. At least one of the bullets that struck him, Connally was convinced, could not have been fired by Oswald.
That bullet, to fit the Warren Commission’s finding of a single gunman, had to have struck the president first in the shoulder. Then, Connally said, it had to have traveled down the bone in Kennedy’s upper arm to the elbow, emerged and continued its trajectory with enough force to strike and wound the Texas governor.
Connally believed that explanation defied the laws of physics. The bullet, he said, would have spent its energy before leaving Kennedy’s arm and couldn’t have done any more damage. (Connally indisputably was in a unique position to know how hard the bullets hit him.)
Since Oswald’s bullets were accounted for, Connally reasoned, there had to have been a second shooter.
I never got the chance to write up Connally’s account of the shooting until today. We talked about it on the two-hour drive back back to Savannah, where our columnist big-footed me and appropriated the JFK material for his own piece the next day. I was left with writing up Connally’s political positions, whatever they were — the ones that earned him one delegate.
Since I never throw anything away, my notebook still sits somewhere in the Atlanta Unfiltered archives. (Picture the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) I haven’t searched for it because Connally’s words from that particular day don’t really matter any more; he shared his skepticism about the Warren report many times before his death in 1993.
Journalists look back on their careers to reflect on their favorite news stories or the good times they shared with colleagues on and off the clock. I simply wanted to share one of those rare moments when a chill literally traveled down my spine and I could appreciate how lucky I’ve been to get someone to pay me to do this.