People are falling over themselves in praise of the former astronaut and US Senator, John Glenn, who has died at the age of 95.
The long practice of the Catholic Church, when considering declaring one of the faithful worthy of sainthood, was to appoint a devil’s advocate- one who considering the piles of testimony by the cured, the hopeful and the economic development council of another second-tier cathedral town, then says, “Yes, but.”
In that light, I consider John Glenn.
He was an Eagle Scout back when that meant something.
He was a war hero. He flew 149 combat missions in two wars and won a chestful of richly deserved honors for bravery and enterprise.
He married the girl he loved, and she was at his bedside when he died, 72 years later. He was an elder in the Presbyterian Church.
John Glenn served his country for 23 years as a Marine.
Had he stopped there, he would have still been a hero, but a much less famous one.
On the other hand, he would have died with a more honorable and distinguished record.
John Glenn was not only brave and enterprising, he was insanely ambitious and remarkably lucky. He talked his way into the nascent US space program despite being at the edge of the age cutoff and having no background in science.
To his colleagues, he was a pious moralizer who recognized that the first American in space would not get there by being anything but a mascot for American values. Not for nothing did the Mercury astronauts refer to themselves as “Spam in a can.” They went up strapped in a tiny container, and they hoped to come down alive.
Glenn came down alive and became the most famous man in the world. After three years of touring and honors, a la another aviation hero who didn’t know when to go home, Charles Lindbergh, Glenn retired from the Marine Corps one day and announced for the United States Senate the next. He was a Democrat because that was the way the wind blew in the postwar era.
A fall in his bathtub scuppered that run, so he took a job as an executive in a fizzy drinks company and spent the next six years waiting to run again. He ran in 1970, and lost the primary to a cable company mogul, Howard Metzenbaum, who then lost the election.
Glenn bottled RC Cola for four more years, then ran against Metzenbaum, who’d been appointed to the Senate after his loss. That time, Glenn won the primary, and the general election.
Metzenbaum returned to the Senate two years later, and the two feuded for years, reducing the effectiveness of both as representatives of their constituents.
Constituents were never really much on Glenn’s mind, though. He set his cap for the 1976 Democratic Party vice presidential nomination and talked his way right out of it with a stunningly dull keynote convention address. His fame, and his mighty Ohio swingstateness, made him a national party figure his merits did not; he was considered, and passed over, for vice president again in 1984, 1988 and 1992.
Undeterred, Glenn ran for president in 1984, and ended up in the also-ran category. He ran up a giant campaign debt, but so low were his prospects as a future leader- to the moneyed classes, at least- it took Glenn twenty years to pay it off.
To his credit, Glenn did. To his discredit, it made him susceptible to the wiles of Charles Keating, a Cincinnati savings and loan boss and spare-time Savonarola who despised the gay artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
Keating took a fancy to build a collection of US Senators; when the scandal broke, he had five. Glenn, who got $200,000 in Keating bucks, was not reprimanded but was marked down for remarkably poor judgment, a standard that many argued, in this election year, disqualifies one from the presidency.
Glenn won re-election in 1992, and spent his last term lobbying to go back into space. He failed two of the three medical experiments on how old people would fare in space- as if there was ever a future for old people in space other than powerful US Senators (Utah Republican Jake Garn made it, too)- but one was enough and at 77, he got his ride. Columnist Nicholas von Hoffman cried, “All hail the world’s oldest lab rat!”
Glenn authored a nuclear proliferation regulatory bill in 1978, and that was pretty much the sum of his legislative career. As the ranking Democrat on a special committee investigating Chinese money in the 1996 presidential campaign, Glenn spent his time feuding with the committee’s chair, Fred Dalton Thompson, who also- later- thought being famous was enough to become president, and with the same results.
Once the Senators in Space program failed to yield the hoped-for appropriation boost, and NASA toyed with putting millionaires in space, Glenn- who had also opposed women astronauts- denounced the idea as having no scientific value.
His military heroism is long forgotten. He will be cherished by history as America's most famous human cannonball.