My brush with history


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Fifty years have passed since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Everyone old enough to remember that day recalls where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I’ve developed the habit of searching the news every November 22 to see how the Kennedy assassination is commemorated. For the most part, it is only dutifully mentioned or barely reported on, though this year, the 50th anniversary of the assassination, is somewhat different.

As a young boy, I saw John Kennedy campaign in front of the Yonkers train station at Larkin Plaza. A few of my Catholic school friends and I took a bus to see him. As his car left the campaign stop, I ran up behind it. I reached over the back of the trunk to touch his outstretched hand and made contact. As life would have it, we would connect again.

Fast forward

The year was 1992. The place was Dallas, Texas. It took me 46 years to get from 2940 Hone Avenue in the Bronx, where seven of us lived in a five-room walk-up, to Dallas. It was there that ex-Texas Governor and former Treasury Secretary John Connally, who was almost assassinated along with John Kennedy, wanted to meet me on a Sunday.

I’d planned to get away with my wife to an Adirondack lake resort that fall weekend, where I was to give the keynote address to a health care association the following Monday. But I knew in my gut that going to Dallas was more important than going to Lake George.

It was weeks before the 1992 presidential election, and there I was having lunch with Connally and a few others in the café at the Anatole Hotel. I was asked to meet with him because he wanted to know how, three years earlier, I’d forecast the rise of a third political party when only 13 percent of the public thought such a movement possible. What’s more, in my book Trend Tracking (1989), I had singled out Ross Perot as just the kind of political maverick who could pull it off. Perot, a third party candidate, was making a serious run for the White House.

I’d come all this way to have lunch with Connally, but frankly, I wasn’t an admirer.

I thought of him as a cowboy con artist, a smooth-talking wheeler-dealer only interested in feathering his own nest. But as he talked over lunch, I realized my dislike was based on his media image. The more he talked, the more ashamed I felt for prejudging him. Secondhand dislike swiftly turned to deep admiration.

I found myself getting annoyed with the others at the table. I’d never heard anyone speak as articulately and with such economy of words as Connally. Each word seemed like a sentence, each sentence a paragraph. I just wanted to hear what he had to say and what was on his mind. “Please shut up!” I’d say to myself when the others at the table chimed in, hoping the power of suggestion would work on them. It didn’t. Quietly and courteously, he would yield to them.

But I would not. Whenever there was a pause, or I was able to make an opening, I’d prompt Connally with a question to lead him back to his previous stream of thought.

“What do you say John, ready to go now?” boomed John Jay Hooker, the Tennessee gadfly who’d arranged the rendezvous. “The limousine is waiting.”

In his rumpled seersucker suit, sporting a white Stetson, the tall Hooker was right out of Central Casting. It was he who’d brought us all together and, unbeknownst to me, had arranged with Connally and his wife Nellie to go with us to the Texas School Book Depository.

Hooker had lost a close race for Governor of Tennessee several years earlier but never left the political scene. His finely appointed Nashville apartment walls were covered with pictures of him and the late-greats. It was a who’s who of American politics: all the Kennedy boys, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and a cast of Congressional movers and shakers. He was now a vociferous opponent of the buying and selling of elections through campaign financing.

“They won’t let go of the tit, Celente my boy,” he said, looking and sounding almost like W.C. Fields. “Once they’re in power, they’re all the same. They think that tit’s only for them to suck on and that no one else is entitled to the mother’s milk of our great country,” Hooker told me, referring to the Democrats’ and Republicans’ permanent grip on the political system.

John Jay Hooker, the man who prompted Ross Perot to throw his hat into the race for president in 1992, had now convinced John Connally and his wife Nellie to return to the scene of JFK’s assassination. This would be the first time they’d gone back since the day it happened, almost 30 years earlier. And there I was, this kid from the Bronx, parked outside the Book Depository listening to John and Nellie Connally tell, firsthand, what had happened on November 22, 1963.

What Connally saw

 

Connally set the scene, pointing out the direction the presidential motorcade had taken around Dealey Plaza. He had been sitting in the jump seat in front of President Kennedy. A tall and rangy man, Connally imitated his uncomfortable scrunched-up position in the small seat and how he was holding his Stetson on his knee. To his side sat Nellie, directly in front of Jackie Kennedy.

“I heard a gun shot. I knew it was a gunshot because I’d been hunting since I was a little boy,” Connally said. “I looked to the right and didn’t see anything. I was wearing a dark blue suit that day,” he recalled. “When I looked to my left, I saw brains on my shoulder. I knew they were brains because my daddy was a butcher. Then I felt as though there was a pounding on my back,” he said, making two parallel fists as if to mimic someone hitting him on the back. He grimaced as he explained what he felt when the bullet meant for Kennedy tore through his body.

And so he and Nellie went on, recounting the minute details of that gruesome event: The three gunshots and the ensuing chaos… The screams of fear… Nellie throwing her body over her husband to shield him… The mad dash drive to Parkland Hospital. Connally had incredible luck in that worst of times. A thoracic surgeon, on break at Parkland, seeing the motorcade screaming into the hospital, rushed to the emergency room and operated on Connally’s lung wound at once.

It was hard for me to process what I was hearing and how privileged I was to be there on what would be, for me, a day of epiphany.

On the way back to the hotel hardly a word was spoken. On my left sat Hooker. Pat Caddell, the pollster, sat on my right.  Connally was across from me. To his right was Rama Fox, Larry King’s girlfriend at the time, and Nellie to his left. It was then that I figured out why I was so taken with the way Connally was speaking, with his calmness, extraordinary clarity, his gestures and assuredness. I knew with absolute certainty that he was a man with a lot to say … and not much time to say it. Connally was dying.

I could see the signs — a stiffness and weakness like those I noticed some 10 years earlier when my father, may his soul rest in peace, was dying. Like my Dad, John was suffering from a pulmonary condition. His was from the gunshot that had ripped through his lungs. My Dad’s lungs were rotted from the asbestos poisoning he got when he worked in the shipyards during World War II.

When I looked at Connally’s hands, I saw my father’s hands before he died. They were stiff, with big, purplish splotches — a reaction to massive doses of prednisone, a cortisone used to temper his lung inflammation.

Connally, remembered as a “straight shooter” by those who knew him, would die of pulmonary fibrosis eight months later. I don’t believe he consciously knew he was dying when we met on tha
t sunny Sunday. But I was convinced that it was his subconscious that dominated his conversation.

When the limo pulled up to the hotel, Connally and I, the middle passengers, were the last to get out. The others were a dozen steps ahead of us, heading for the elevators, when Connally stopped and turned to me. “Gerald, I read your book and it’s a fine piece of work,” he said. “And I know that your heart is in the right place, but you don’t have a clue of what’s going on in the government, and neither do the American people. Because if they did, there’d be a revolution in this country.”

My moment of epiphany

Without another word, he headed for the elevators and caught up with the others. For an instant I stood alone. I didn’t know what was behind that remark, but with Connally as the source, it came less as a shock than as a confirmation. Even without knowing the details, I understood what Connally was telling me. Over the years, the unique Globalnomic trend forecasting system that I had developed, and which was proving remarkably successful, had given me an advantage in viewing the world and the machinations of government with a critical eye. I was able to stand outside the political box and beyond the scope of print and broadcast media reporting. With no agenda to sell and beholden to no one, I had become a political atheist, uncommitted to either party and interested only in accurately interpreting the facts.

But what I had not quite realized before my lunch with Connally was the extent of the corruption and the slim odds of anyone bucking the system and winning.

This was coming from the horse’s mouth. Here was a man who had been at the top of government and deep inside the corridors of power. This was not Sunday morning Beltway babble coming from Face the Nation or Meet the Press. This was a one-on-one straight scoop coming from a man in the position to know and talking outside of a public forum. I recognized it as a singular and privileged moment. I was given insight into the real gravity of just how bad things were. It was the culmination of a long process.

Straight out of graduate school, I had begun my career as the campaign coordinator for the Republican/Conservative mayoral candidate in Yonkers, New York. From there, I went to Albany as assistant to the Secretary of the New York State Senate. Recognizing that I was seeing politics in action from a different vantage point than those caught up in the process, I designed and taught what I believe to have been one of the first courses in “American Politics and Campaign Technology” at St. John’s University. I spent the next several years as a Government Affairs Specialist working between Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Beginning as a believer in the American democratic system, I held to that belief into my early 30s. But, by the time I met Connally, I had lost my naiveté and harbored deep doubts about government. And my disdain for most politicians was growing. It was not just what Connally said that moved me, but the authority and gravity of the way he said it. He was my epiphany.

We all went up to his suite and had a couple of drinks, a few snacks and some small talk. Hooker was trying to sign Connally on to the board of directors for a chain of steak houses he wanted to develop. Caddell, a Washington insider, and Connally traded tales of political days gone by. Rama cooed about her engagement to Larry King.

I half listened and said nothing. My brain and body were still waiting for the elevator, as I replayed Connally’s statement: “If the American people knew what was going on in this government, there’d be a revolution.”

That line reinforced my political atheism. I refused to believe in political dogma, genuflect before any political preacher or vow obedience to any political god. I would not be a member of any party or follow any leader.

That day in Dallas strengthened my resolve to base forecasts on verifiable data and to select those facts that illuminated the actual situation rather than those supporting a particular political/economic/philosophical agenda.

“If the American people knew what was going on … .” I wondered if revolution would happen and when.

Twenty years later, I no longer wonder. The second American Revolution has begun.

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