John Glenn was one of my heroes. When I was a kid, we would learn about the exploits of the Mercury astronauts in “My Weekly Reader” and gawk at their photographs in Life magazine. Each of us had a favorite, and Glenn was mine. I was in second grade in February 1962 when he became the first American to orbit the globe, and like the rest of the country, I was ecstatic.
Glenn, who died this week at 95, was the rare public figure who was exactly what he seemed — the smiling, hardworking Presbyterian from a little town in Ohio who joined the Marines as an aviator after Pearl Harbor, won medals in two wars, and became the face of the U.S. space program. He was a genuine hero at a time when heroes were in short supply.
It’s hard to capture for the contemporary reader the extent to which the Cold War dominated public life in the early 1960s. This was the era of fallout shelters and air raid drills. Glenn’s flight was sandwiched between the crises in Berlin and Cuba, either of which could have erupted into a conflagration. Children worried as much as adults about Armageddon. My friends and I used to bet nickels and dimes on when World War III would start.
In this atmosphere, the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union took on apocalyptic proportions. The astronauts were feted and honored as, in truth, no group of American heroes has been since.
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The nation hung on their every move. My friends and I would compete to see who could name the seven Mercury crafts: Aurora 7, Friendship 7, Freedom 7, and the rest. We knew that Alan Shepard was a test pilot and that Glenn had won six Distinguished Flying Crosses. We also knew that the U.S. was falling behind the Soviet Union in outer space. Everyone knew that, even if it wasn’t really true.
In “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe attributes much of the adoration of the Mercury astronauts to an intuition that by challenging the Soviets in space they were engaged in something akin to the ancient ritual of single combat, where “the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces.” Our astronauts versus their cosmonauts, and the winning side would somehow win everything else too.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, we seemed to be losing. The Soviets were first to send a man into space and first to send a man around the planet. On top of that, as Wolfe points out, our rockets always seemed to blow up. It’s difficult to capture in words the public relief — the sheer joy — when Glenn completed his mission. Three orbits. The first person to see four sunrises in one day. Suddenly, the U.S. was ahead.
And never looked back.
A couple of years after his flight, Glenn left the astronaut corps with the intention of entering politics in his native Ohio. The post-Watergate Democratic wave election of 1974 propelled him to the Senate, where he compiled a moderately liberal voting record. Six years later, defying the Republican wave that washed away 12 Democratic seats, Glenn won re-election by an astonishing 68.8 percent to 28.3 percent.
In 1983, the film version of Wolfe’s book was released. According to my father, in those days a senior and connected Democrat, party elders were concerned that the movie had ruined Glenn’s presidential chances. Hollywood portrayed him as an earnest and aw-shucks all-American goody-two-shoes — or, as Wolfe called him in the book, an Andy Attaboy. Perhaps this would be too much for an electorate grown cynical after Watergate and Vietnam.
But Glenn’s on-screen persona turned out not to be the problem. The voters loved it. He drew crowds. Happy audiences would chant “You’ve got the right stuff!” But it wasn’t enough. Glenn ran into two barriers. First, although there were party professionals who thought he was the only Democrat with serious a shot at dethroning Reagan, the base was already turning against the moderates.
Second, Glenn made a strategic error. Before it was fashionable, he ran essentially as a celebrity. He piloted his own plane to campaign appearances. He had ideas, but didn’t bother with serious organization or fundraising. Observing the disarray, The New York Times wrote disapprovingly that the candidate was following “a media approach that emphasized the senator’s triumphs in war and space over one that stressed such traditional techniques as organizing volunteers to build support at the local level.”
But those of us who adored him would not have wanted him to run any other way. To us, Glenn was larger than life, and, in our innocence, we imagined that he might be elected practically by acclamation.
How little we knew.
He didn’t get the nomination. He didn’t come close. Yet he never shrank in our estimation. We loved him for trying. And all that he had accomplished, he had still accomplished.
In 1998, at age 77, Glenn would go back into space, aboard the shuttle Discovery. Critics complained that a precious seat that could have gone to a scientist or artist was being wasted on a publicity stunt. But the critics had no idea what they were talking about. John Glenn belonged in outer space. As far as those of us who loved him were concerned, he had earned the right to go up pretty much any time he wanted.
Glenn wasn’t just my hero. He was our hero; an American hero, truly larger than life. And that’s a breed that just doesn’t come around anymore.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist, novelist and professor of law at Yale University.