Small-Town Hero: Remembering John Glenn's Right Stuff

By Jeff Robbins

July 27, 2021 5 min read

On July 4, 1997, Sen. John Glenn hosted a lunch for his staff in his hideaway office underneath the Capitol dome. Born in New Concord, Ohio, population 1,800, the plumber's son turned war hero turned astronaut Glenn felt America's birthday in his bones, and he was in good spirits.

At the time, Glenn was the ranking Democrat on a Republican-controlled Senate committee investigating former President Bill Clinton's administration for alleged fundraising improprieties during Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. The Democrats had engaged in the same routine, legal but sometimes malodorous practices in which both parties have historically engaged, dangling access to top officials in order to stroke large donors. The Republicans, barely recovered from the shock of seeing Clinton defeat former President George H.W. Bush in 1992, fairly levitated with rage at Clinton's easy defeat of Bob Dole the previous November. They professed to be shocked — shocked! — that the Democrats had solicited campaign contributions in the exact same way Republicans had. And they saw an opportunity to blacken former Vice President Al Gore and undermine his prospects for succeeding Clinton in 2000. The political charges and countercharges were not only predictable but old as the hills.

It was, in short, nothing more than politics, and Glenn, though given a central role in the investigation as the senior Democrat on the committee, was barely able to mask his disinterest. Almost 76, the first American to orbit the earth was far more interested in lobbying NASA to permit him to return to space, arguing that this would enable scientists to better study the effects of aging. Glenn had to pass a rigorous, highly invasive series of physical examinations, ones which, to put it delicately, involved no shortage of tubes and other unpleasant objects being run through parts of the body that God did not create in order to have tubes and other unpleasant objects run through them.

"How long will you be up there if NASA lets you do it?" one of Glenn's committee lawyers asked him.

"Seven to 10 days," Glenn replied.

"So, you have to spend weeks having tubes run through you in order to win the right to have tubes run through you for seven to 10 days in space?" asked the uncomprehending lawyer, suddenly without any appetite.

"Pretty much," said Glenn.

"Haven't you heard of Club Med?" his lawyer asked.

"For me," Glenn replied, "this would be Club Med."

Glenn was made of different stuff. He quit college to enlist after the United States entered World War II, flew 149 combat missions for his country in that conflict and then in Korea, winning a crateful of military honors. After the Soviet Union leapt ahead of America in the space race, Glenn gave his countrymen a badly needed lift in 1962 when he orbited the planet. His 1984 presidential campaign fell flat in part because of his down-to-earth personality. "If you were driving through New Concord, Ohio, and you needed directions," remembers Jonathan Dorfman, who ran Glenn's New York state campaign, "he was the guy who would get in his car and say, 'Hey, follow me.'"

Glenn ultimately got his wish to serve his country yet one more time. On October 29, 1998, the 77-year-old returned to space as a payload specialist on space shuttle Discovery.

John Glenn would have turned 100 this month, a month that saw billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos flaunt their galactic wealth and double-galactic egos to travel to the edge of space. Their trips, which earned them the media attention they crave, marked a new frontier in self-promotion. This was quite a contrast with Glenn, the small-town boy who took self-effacing national service to new heights.

"Glenn lived the life that Ronald Reagan played in the movies," observes Dorfman. As the country searches its soul and wrestles with the meaning of patriotism, we could do worse than to reflect a bit on American patriot John Glenn on his 100th birthday.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

Photo credit: NASA-Imagery at Pixabay

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