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Remembering a true hero with the "right stuff"

Dec 9, 2016

I respect most people who go into politics, and have admired some. But with a very few exceptions, I’ve never been in awe of those I’ve met, including Presidents.

They were highly accomplished people, occupying an institution I revered, but people still the same. But that’s not how I felt on a cold March morning almost thirty-four years ago, when I climbed into a small plane in Washington headed for New Hampshire.

The man strapped in directly across from me gave me a smile that was both warm and a little shy, and held out a bag of Reese’s Pieces. “Want some ET bait?” he said. He was, of course, John Glenn, who twenty-one years before had been the first American to orbit the earth.

I was there to spend a couple of days with Glenn, then a United States senator from Ohio, who was running for President. This was very early in the campaign, and it was just me and a single aide. I would report what he said and did, and write an honest assessment of his campaign.

But at that moment, all I wanted to do was track down every kid who was in my fifth grade class and inform them that I was talking to John Glenn.

If you weren’t around in the early 1960s, those first seven astronauts were America’s last unsullied heroes. The satirical writer Andy Borowitz said the other day that archeology had discovered that there was a time when Americans actually believed in science.

There was such a time, and I was there. We believed in science and progress and our leaders. The Russians had sent a man into orbit before us. But then this clean-cut, all-American hero redeemed our honor. He had gone into politics after that, and was now trying for the Democratic nomination for president, and I went with him, to gatherings in various New Hampshire halls and living rooms.

They came, of course, to see the astronaut. He was a good senator. But his speeches were flat and wooden. Once, sitting on a runway, I asked him about an unusual plane. Glenn became extremely eloquent and compelling, telling me about how its navigation worked.

If he could have spoken like that about the budget, he might have been nominated. He was actually very progressive, a close friend of the Kennedys, but was typecast as the conservative Democrat in that race, and Democrats weren’t in the mood for a conservative.

His campaign didn’t last long. He served many years in the Senate, returned to space when he was 77, and remained an authentic hero. If you’ve seen the movie the Right Stuff, that was him. His wife Annie was graceful, warm and charming. “I don’t know how they found out all that stuff in that movie,” she told me laughing, “but it was all true.”

John Glenn died yesterday at 95, and I found myself sadder than I’d expected. Not especially for him, but for us. When President Kennedy died, a writer said to Daniel Patrick Moynihan that they would never laugh again. He told her that of course they would, then added, “but we’ll never be young again.” It feels sort of like that.

And I’m glad John Glenn was there in my youth, a million years ago.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.