John Glenn always gave his country 110 percent


See how I didn’t use, “Godspeed, John Glenn?” I wanted to, but I figured everyone else would…

John Glenn was one of my heroes, but that says nothing special about me, except that I was a kid when the Mercury Seven — of which he was the most illustrious, the most conspicuous — were wowing the nation with their exploits. I remember being herded into the auditorium with the rest of my 3rd-grade class to watch him orbit the Earth, as it happened, on a medium-sized black-and-white TV that had been wheeled in for the occasion.800px-colonel_john_glenn_official_photo

Later, The Right Stuff made me admire him all the more, even though Wolfe made it clear how low the astronauts were on the Test Pilot Pyramid (“A monkey’s gonna make the first flight!”). When he ran for president in 1984, he was the guy I wanted to see take it all. I couldn’t believe he did no better than he did; I chalked it up to a decline in the national character.

An anecdote that illustrates Glenn as an exemplar of old-fashioned virtues: In the book, Tom Wolfe really played up Glenn’s status as the most gung-ho, straight-shooting, hard-working, unapologetic advocate of duty and clean living in the astronaut corps. One small example of how meticulously conscientious he was: Whenever he went on a goodwill tour of one of the factories that were building the components of the Mercury rockets and capsules, within days he would send hand-written thank-you notes to everybody he had met at the plant.

I never met Glenn myself, but early in 1984, his daughter made a visit to Jackson, Tenn., where I was the news editor of the local paper. She came by the paper and met with us, advocating for her dad, and before she left, I put on another hat and asked her whether there was any chance of getting John himself to come speak at the banquet of Leadership Jackson, of which I was the rising president.

In the mail a few days later, I received a card from her in which she went on at length about her efforts to follow up on my request.

So, in addition to being our foremost Single-Combat Warrior Challenging the Godless Commies for Dominance of the Heavens, he was a pretty-good Dad as well, passing on his own relentless habits of following through, of being dutiful even in small things.

OK, I’m going to say it: Godspeed, John Glenn

11 thoughts on “John Glenn always gave his country 110 percent

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And the more I think about it, the more that notion is impressed upon me. Really, who was the last All-American Boy-style hero we had? Someone you can feel good about on every level?

      Even Trump said he was a hero — possibly because Glenn wasn’t captured.

      Speaking of which — I regard McCain as a hero (just as I do his friend and mine, Jack Van Loan). Of course, those who are determined to find fault are able to do so with him, since he was more the typical wild-living Fighter Jock in his youth.

      You can’t do that with Glenn. He was a straight arrow all the way, a complete role model for the youth of the nation. When his fast-living comrades enjoyed the young women who threw themselves at them, he lectured them to keep their pants zipped. And he, for one, had room to talk. He was truly, as Wolfe wrote, “”a lonely beacon of restraint and self-sacrifice in a squall of car crazies.” While they were running wild, he was virtuously running around the circular drive of the BOQ, staying in shape.

      His loving support of his wife — who found fame a terrible burden because of her extreme stutter — was legendary. He adamantly backed her completely when she said “no” to LBJ, who wanted to bring network TV crews into her living room. When, years later, she gained the ability to speak without a stutter, he wept with joy.

      He was just an all-around admirable guy, and the most prominent one in my lifetime.

      One of Tom Wolfe’s earlier New Journalism pieces was headlined, “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” It was about the stock-car driver.

      But the label applied far better to the man he wrote about later.

  1. Rose

    Saw this interesting related story on CNN:
    NASA employed a unit of black female mathematicians, called the Computer Pool, to make the calculations for space missions, before computers were widely used:

    “Johnson’s work was held in such high regard in its time that Glenn, who died on Thursday, was aware of it. Computers were so new that even people at NASA were skeptical of them, and Glenn requested that Johnson personally confirm its calculations before his trip three times around Earth.
    A day and a half later she proved the computer right.”

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    There’s a nice column about Glenn in The Washington Post by Homer Hickam. I like the ending:

    Mark Twain famously said that God looks after fools, drunks and the United States of America. Add to that somewhat tongue-in-cheek maxim a certain American hero named John Glenn. Trudging along for years as a dispassionate politician, he caught fire again when he got it into his head to fly aboard the Space Shuttle in 1998. By all accounts, once he secured a seat, he gloried in every second of the training and his days in space. It is my hope that during that time, the optimism of the New Frontier returned to Glenn’s life. For the spirit he gave a beleaguered nation so long ago, it was the least we Americans could do for him.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    I like this paragraph from The Wall Street Journal today, which reminds me why Glenn was my choice for president in 1984:

    As a senator, Mr. Glenn was noted for his interest in military issues. In 1984, he failed in an attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination as voters found little excitement in his pitch for the “sensible center” of moderation. He called for income-tax increases to shrink the budget deficit and promised: “The programs we propose will be moderate programs that will provide a balance between competing interests in our society.”…

    “The sensible center” is exactly where we need our political leaders to reside. And you pretty much had to be a celebrated national hero, a steely-eyed missile man, to have the guts to suggest a tax increase at the height of the Reagan years.

    My kind of candidate, all the way….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ll admit that’s not very exciting campaign rhetoric. But I’d FAR rather vote for someone who said that than someone who said he or she was going to “fight for people like” me, or any of the other usual garbage that stirs voters’ blood more…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        As y’all know, that “fight for” language, which is SO popular with Democrats (but also sometimes crops up in GOP speeches), is possibly my least favorite political cliche. I’ve taken Hillary Clinton, for instance, to task a number of times for using it.

        But Doug today reminded me of another one just as bad, which is more popular with the libertarian sort of Republican: the dismissal of ANY government program proposed by Democrats (or by anyone) as “spending other people’s money.”

        I need to think of some others and see if I can come up with a Top Five list…

        1. Bart

          I have always tried to imagine what it would look like to see Hillary in the fight ring with another politician with gloves on actually “fighting for” something. Maybe go for 3 rounds and the one who couldn’t get up off the stool loses. I doubt there would be a knockout.

          You don’t need a Top Five list, all you need is the two mentioned and 3 through 5 would be any promises made by a politician during any speech he or she makes during a campaign or even after getting in office.

  4. Bart

    John Glenn was as you said, probably the last true American hero to grace this country. His devotion to family, country, and duty was beyond reproach. Ohio was fortunate to have John Glenn as one of their Senators and it was unfortunate his honest message was not heeded when he ran for POTUS. John Glenn was an honorable man among men who served this country, was faithful to his wife and family, and stayed true to who he was. It would be great if we had more like him and if the voters would listen to his words and not the juvenile theatrics of the political circus of today.


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