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John Glenn: The Hero Who Knew What Mattered in Life

A man who understood who he was and had nothing to prove

John Glenn, right, seen here with his wife Annie and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, during Glenn’s 1975 Senate swearing-in ceremony. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
John Glenn, right, seen here with his wife Annie and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, during Glenn’s 1975 Senate swearing-in ceremony. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amid the obituaries and the tributes to John Glenn, a point of emphasis has been lost. Until Tom Wolfe published “The Right Stuff” in 1979, the original Mercury astronauts were shrouded in a patriotic haze. They were heroes — and Glenn had been elected to the Senate in 1974 — but to most Americans, they were also cardboard figures of Star-Spangled rectitude.

NASA had sold the exclusive stories of the astronauts to Life magazine for $500,000, giving each of the Mercury Seven $72,000 over three years, an unimaginable figure for a fighter jock in the early 1960s. But the trade-off was that the weekly magazine, with NASA’s encouragement, sanitized everything so each of the astronauts became less a person than a personification of Captain America.

Breaking through this cloying myth structure was the transcendent accomplishment of “The Right Stuff,” which still shimmers on rereading as Wolfe’s masterwork. And the hero at the center of it was John Glenn, displaying a moral complexity that I never imagined when I cheered him from a Manhattan sidewalk (along with my entire school class from Connecticut) during his 1962 ticker-tape parade.

The story in “The Right Stuff” that defined Glenn was the tale of how, after an aborted liftoff of his capsule, he encouraged his beloved wife Annie to stand up to Vice President Lyndon Johnson to protect herself from embarrassment. As Wolfe sets it up,  “There’s John, covered with sweat, drawn, deflated, beginning to feel very tired after waiting for five hours for 367,000 pounds of liquid oxygen to explode under his back … and the hierarchy of NASA has one thing on its mind: keeping Lyndon Johnson happy.”

The vice president with all three TV networks in tow demanded to come to Glenn’s Arlington, Virginia, home to publicly console the astronaut’s wife on the delayed flight. But Annie Glenn suffered, at that point, from a debilitating stutter and wanted no part of an LBJ publicity stunt. So NASA patched Annie into the cockpit by phone assuming in 1960s fashion that Glenn would drum sense into his wife.

Instead of the sensible marital talk that NASA expected, Glenn told Annie, “Look, if you don’t want the vice president or the TV networks or anyone else to come into the house, then that’s it, as far as I’m concerned, they are not coming in — and I will back you all the way, 100 percent.”

That rectitude was the true right stuff. Even more than Glenn orbiting the Earth and flying 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea.

[Opinion: Remembering John Glenn, Lawmaker]

When “The Right Stuff” was made into a movie in 1983, starring Ed Harris as Glenn, it inspired my first cover story for Newsweek. Anticipating a Glenn race for the White House, the cover line asked, “Can a Movie Help Make a President?” And without answering the question, inside the magazine, I wrote, “With the upcoming release of the movie version of Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Right Stuff,’ a new generation will marvel at the courage of square-jawed, freckle-faced, blue-eyed Marine Col. John Glenn.”

But what made me cringe at the time was that the editors of Newsweek, after a vigorous internal debate, decided to feature Ed Harris rather than Glenn himself on the cover. It may seem comically naive today, but I worried at the time about show business values contaminating serious politics by placing an actor on the news magazine cover playing Glenn.  

As a presidential candidate, Glenn often suffered the indignity of receiving more enthusiastic applause before he spoke than after. After finishing a near-invisible fifth in the 1984 Iowa caucuses and then being walloped by Gary Hart and Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary, Glenn headed south to make his last stand in the Alabama, Florida and Georgia primaries.

Out of money to pay his staffers and facing crowds of fewer than 100 when once entire cities cheered his presence, Glenn faced the end of his White House dreams with dignity and stoicism. What stayed with me, while traveling with him through the South, was how devoted personally the traveling press corps was to Glenn and, especially, Annie.

What I also recall from that final swing was that Glenn was accompanied by a new mother-daughter country duo called The Judds (Naomi and Wynonna) who had just released an early single “Why Not Me?” As Glenn dwindled in the polls and “Why Not Me?” rose on the Billboard charts, the Judds spent more and more time preening onstage at the campaign rallies, barely deigning to acknowledge the presidential candidate who had hired them.

One of the things that I didn’t know about Glenn until I read his obituary was that he had signed up for the Naval Aviation cadet program immediately after Pearl Harbor. So he died 75 years plus one day after the attack that, in effect, transported him from the small town of New Concord, Ohio, to outer space.

Those small-town virtues that Glenn embodied — the belief that the worth of a person is not measured in his brokerage account or the flashiness of his surroundings — are profoundly out of fashion today.

One of the first images of Glenn in “The Right Stuff” is him driving home to see Annie on weekends “in an ancient Peugeot … the sorriest-looking and most underpowered automobile legally registered to any fighter pilot in America.”

It was the car of man who knew who he was and had nothing to prove. It was a car that Donald Trump never ever would have driven.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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