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Robert Strauss’s Watergate Secret

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In The Haldeman Diaries, Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman describes Connally providing valuable insights about the inner workings of the Democratic Party. Nixon's team even broached the idea with Connally that he might replace Spiro Agnew as Nixon's vice presidential running mate, an offer Connally declined.

Many other Texas Democrats were loyal to former President Lyndon Johnson who had battled anti-war activists before deciding against a reelection bid in 1968. "There had been a major fight in Texas between the Left and the Right, between the liberals and the conservatives," Oliver said. "They hated each other. It was one of these lifetime things."

Between the strength of the conservative Democratic machine and the history of hardball Texas politics, the Texas convention looked to Oliver like the perfect place to push through a solid anti-McGovern slate, even though nearly one-third of the state delegates listed McGovern as their first choice. Since there was no requirement for proportional representation, whoever controlled a majority at the state convention could take all the presidential delegates or divide them up among other candidates, Oliver said.

At Sanford's suggestion, Oliver decided to fly to Texas. When he reached the Texas convention in San Antonio, Oliver said he was stunned by what he found. The Johnson-Connally wing of the party appeared uncharacteristically generous to the McGovern campaign. Also arriving from Washington was one of Connally's Democratic proteges, the party's national treasurer Bob Strauss.

"I'm in the hotel and I'm standing in the lobby the day before the convention," Oliver said. "The elevator opens and there's Bob Strauss. I was really surprised to see him and he makes a bee-line straight for me. He says, 'Spencer, how you doing?' I say, 'Bob, what are you doing here?' He says, 'I'm a Texan, you're a Texan. Here we are. Who would miss one of these state conventions? Maybe we ought to have lunch.' He was never that friendly to me before."

Oliver was curious about Strauss's sudden appearance because Strauss had never been a major figure in Texas Democratic politics. "He was a Connally guy and had no background in politics except his personal ties to Connally," Oliver said. "He hadn't been active in state politics except as Connally's fund-raiser. He wasn't a delegate to the state convention."

Plus, Strauss's chief mentor, Connally, was a member of Nixon's Cabinet and was planning to head up "Democrats for Nixon" in the fall campaign. Known as a smooth-talking lawyer, Strauss had made his first major foray into politics as a principal fund-raiser for Connally's first gubernatorial race in 1962. Connally then put Strauss on the Democratic National Committee in 1968. Two years later, Connally agreed to join the Nixon administration

"I wouldn't say that Connally and Strauss are close," one critic famously told The New York Times, "but when Connally eats watermelon, Strauss spits seeds."

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Other Connally guys held other key positions at the state convention, including state chairman Will Davis. So, presumably the liberal, anti-war McGovern would have looked to be in a tight spot, opposed not only by Davis but also by much of the conservative state Democratic leadership and organized labor.

"It was clear that 70 percent of the delegates were anti-McGovern, so they very easily could have coalesced, struck a deal and blocked McGovern," Oliver said. "That probably would have blocked him from the nomination."

Oliver told some political allies at the convention, including party activists R.C. "Bob" Slagle III and Dwayne Holman, about the plan that had been hatched in Washington to shut McGovern out of Texas delegates.

"They thought it might work and agreed to promote it with the state Democratic leadership," Oliver said. "Bob went to lay out this plan to stop McGovern and I waited for him. (After he emerged from the meeting,) we went around the corner, and he said, 'It's not going to work.' He said, 'Will Davis thinks we ought to give McGovern his share of the delegates.'

"I said, 'What? Will Davis, John Connally's guy? Does he know that this will give McGovern the nomination?' He [Davis] said, 'We shouldn't have a big fight. We should all agree that everyone gets the percentage they had in the preference. We'll just let it go.'"

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Oliver said, "That was the most astonishing thing I had heard in all my years of Texas politics. There's never been any quarter given or any asked in this sort of thing. Seventy percent of the delegates were against McGovern. Why did those die-hard conservatives and organized labor want to give him 30 percent of the votes? I was stunned."

After a 17-hour final session, the convention gave 42 national delegates to Alabama Gov. George Wallace and 34 to McGovern, with Hubert Humphrey getting 21 and 33 listed as uncommitted. According to The New York Times, the Texas results put McGovern about two-thirds of the way toward 1,509 needed for a first-round nomination.

Although failing at his Texas mission, Oliver continued to pursue his strategy of promoting Terry Sanford as a compromise Democratic nominee. He proceeded to Mississippi where Hodding Carter, a rising star among moderate Mississippi Democrats, agreed to nominate Sanford at the national convention. Oliver then returned to Washington, where he discussed the delegate situation by telephone with Fowler and other state chairmen before traveling to his father's summer home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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