POLITICAL HISTORY: The Conspiracist Vs. The Crooner

By 1973, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison was a well-known figure outside of his jurisdiction, due largely to the legal and political rabbit hole he followed down, down, down and further down in the wake of the assassination of late President John F. Kennedy.

By that fall, trapped in the shadow of a trial gone bad, the notoriously tenacious former FBI agent was desperately fighting for his political life. Four years earlier, Garrison and his prosecutors had staged the sensational trial of Clay Shaw, a prominent New Orleans businessman, charging that he been involved in the assassination.

The Louisiana-rooted case drew international press and attention, of course, bringing Garrison to such heights as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. As for Shaw, he was acquitted after less than an hour of jury deliberations.

Garrison himself was also on trial in 1973. Federal prosecutors accused him of taking bribes from operators of illegal pinball machines — and keeping them in business by directing the efforts of his office elsewhere. In defense, Garrison said the government was out to get him for investigating the Kennedy assassination.

When reporters questioned him at a press conference, Garrison shouted, “The Department of Justice of the U.S. government is absolutely corrupt!”

Garrison was eventually acquitted that August, after the validity of some evidence was called into question. The lengthy criminal trial had eaten up most of the district attorney’s year, and his re-election campaign would begin in earnest in just a few short weeks.

His opponent was Harry Connick Sr., a former assistant U.S. Attorney who also moonlighted as a singer in the Crescent City. His son, Harry Connick Jr., then an aspiring musician, performed at his father’s campaign events. The candidate struck a memorable tone as well, calling the six-foot-six Garrison a “moral midget.”

It was Connick’s second race against Garrison, having last lost at the polls in 1969. But in the four years since, the incumbent’s political stock had plummeted. Even after Garrison was acquitted of bribery charges, many still seriously questioned his ethics.

Polls showed that most locals viewed Shaw’s trial as nothing more than a publicity stunt funded by their tax dollars. Both of the city’s newspapers, The Times-Picayune and The States-Item, endorsed Connick. Plus, Shaw had an extensive network of friends in the city’s business community, almost all of whom were happy to open their checkbooks to defeat Garrison.

After outspending Garrison by a wide margin, Connick narrowly defeated him on election day by less than 2,500 votes. Dejected, Garrison filed suit against Connick, alleging that voter fraud was responsible for his electoral loss.

The lawsuit, like the petitioner, was defeated. Connick would go on to hold the seat for another 30 years.

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