Mark Shields: John Glenn, the genuine article
If you were old enough to tie your shoes Feb. 20, 1962, then you almost surely remember Marine Col. John H. Glenn Jr. entering the history books by becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.
During that flight, Americans, watching on their black-and-white television sets, held their collective breath after reports that there was trouble in the fiberglass heat shield of Glenn’s tiny capsule. If that heat shield had not been in its exact position during re-entry, Glenn quite simply would have been incinerated. Upon Glenn’s safe return, President John F. Kennedy flew to Cape Canaveral to welcome him back. Pablo Picasso, no major fan of America or Americans, exclaimed, “I am as proud of him as if he were my brother.” The biggest ticker tape parade in New York history followed. Glenn was invited to address a joint session of Congress. Schools, babies, highways and airports were named after Glenn, who continues, after his death at 95, as an enduring American hero.
Let me testify as someone who was fortunate enough to know him for almost a half-century. John Glenn was absolutely the genuine article. He loved his country, the Marine Corps and one woman, the thoroughly admirable Annie Glenn, to whom he was married and devoted for more than 73 years.
Glenn was one of Ohio’s U.S. senators for 24 years. The difference between the grown-ups and the adolescents in public life is simple: The adolescents want to be something, whereas the grown-ups want to do something. What made this American hero exceptional was that he, unlike so many who seek high office, never needed a daily ego fix from media affirmation. He already knew what it was to be a living legend. Glenn only wanted to make a difference.
Nobody on Capitol Hill worked harder than Glenn on the critical but unglamorous issue of nuclear nonproliferation. Committed to strengthening government research and higher education, he steadfastly opposed the export of U.S. nuclear technology. That independent inspectors general are now appointed in all federal agencies is a tribute to Glenn’s efforts.
A personal reminiscence: On May 4, 1974, I was almost certain that Glenn would someday be elected president. That was just three days before the end of an acrimonious Democratic primary battle, when Glenn debated his opponent, the appointed U.S. senator Howard Metzenbaum, who, in that anti-Vietnam War environment, had faulted “Col. Glenn” for never having “met a payroll.” The Glenn camp accused Metzenbaum of charging that Glenn had never held a job.
At the Cleveland debate, Glenn said: “I spent 23 years in the United States Marine Corps. I was through two wars. I flew 149 missions. My plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 12 different occasions. I was in the space program. It wasn’t my checkbook; it was my life that was on the line. …
“I ask you to go with me, as I went the other day, out to a veterans hospital. Look those men out there, with their mangled bodies, in the eye and tell them they didn’t hold a job. You go with me to any gold star mother and you look her in the eye and you tell her that her son did not hold a job. …
“You go with me on Memorial Day coming up and you stand in Arlington National Cemetery — where I have more friends than I like to remember — and you watch those waving flags. You stand there and you think about this nation and you tell me that those people didn’t have a job.
“I tell you, Howard Metzenbaum, you should be on your knees every day of your life thanking God that there were some men — some men — who held a job. And they required a dedication to purpose and a love of country and a dedication to duty that was more important than life itself. And their self-sacrifice is what has made this nation possible. I’ve held a job, Howard.”
What followed was an uninterrupted 22-second standing ovation and a thumping Glenn victory, which led to his four honorable terms in the Senate. This good man from New Concord, Ohio, never made it to the White House. But boy, did John Glenn serve his country!