Cut the political cynicism, Glenn still has the right stuff for space flight

January 19, 1998|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At the 1984 dinner of the Gridiron Club, the president of the group of newspaper correspondents delivered the traditional speech poking fun at politicians in the news. Running down the list of unsuccessful candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination that spring, he said, ''And as for John Glenn, his campaign was so bad it almost -- but not quite -- gave patriotism a bad name.''

Patriotic feelings

The next day the Gridiron president got a telephone call from an old friend who had attended the dinner. ''You better get square with John Glenn,'' he said. ''He was really offended by that crack you made.''

An adviser to Mr. Glenn confirmed the Ohio senator's pique. ''He just can't take anyone questioning his patriotism,'' he said. So the offending speaker wrote to Mr. Glenn apologizing and stressing it had all been just a joke. But it took a year or two before the chill was lifted in the relationship between the correspondent and the senator.

This story is worth retelling because of what it says about John Glenn and, more to the point, what it says about the kind of cynicism he is encountering in his attempt to make another flight into space.

Critics say the whole thing is an attempt by Mr. Glenn to improve his image after a difficult stint as the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee that held hearings on campaign finances last year. What garbage.

At the most elementary level, the notion that a 76-year-old retiring senator would be so concerned about his ''image'' is laughable. Mr. Glenn's political career is over and his place in American history has been secure for more than 35 years -- ever since he became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth.

Quite beyond that, however, Mr. Glenn has always been the super-patriot straight arrow who took his responsibilities to the Marine Corps, the space program and the country very seriously. Perhaps too seriously, as the story about his pique at the Gridiron dinner illustrates.

'Scientific reason'

And, finally, Mr. Glenn, who still flies his own plane, has been saying for years that he wanted a chance to make another space flight. All he is doing now is adding a rationale -- the ''good scientific reason,'' as he once put it, that he could be used to test the effects of weightlessness on a 76-year-old man, something that has not been done up to this point.

But political discourse in America today is sick. No one is allowed to do anything without his or her motives being examined and without the most damaging explanations being found for his or her behavior.

And this seems to be the case even with someone whose history is as golden as Mr. Glenn's. He is a man who flew 149 combat missions as a Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War, suffering hits from enemy fire 11 times. He is the test pilot who once set a speed record for transcontinental flight.

But, above all, he is the man who lifted the whole country out of its inferiority complex on space five years after the Soviet Union had beaten this country to the punch with Sputnik. Anyone who was paying attention in 1962 recalls Mr. Glenn as perfectly cast as a national hero, the small-town boy from Ohio who had ''the right stuff'' to put America back in the lead again in the race for the moon.

NASA's choice

The White House insisted that the decision be made solely by Daniel Goldin, the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and solely on the issue of whether there is a practical purpose for Mr. Glenn to be sent into space at his age. But that was just so much bureaucratic talk designed to shut up the cynics who see political motives.

And that wasn't necessary. John Glenn has earned it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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