Baby boomers may remember the day John Glenn, who passed away Thursday at the age of 95, became an American hero. It was February 20, 1962, when he orbited the Earth three times in the Friendship 7 spacecraft. That flight wouldn’t seem much of an accomplishment today, but 54 years ago it marked a milestone in the American space program.
Glenn was good material for an American hero. He was modest, dedicated, and patriotic, and he appeared in the media spotlight at a time when Americans worried about Russia’s growing power and achievements in space. Two Russian cosmonauts had already completed single orbits of the Earth. As Glenn later said, “the Soviets were using space as a selling point for communism.” His flight reassured Americans that the country still had the expertise and courage to accomplish great things.
In 1998, he made history again by flying the space shuttle Discovery at age 77. In the years between, Glenn served as an Ohio senator.
He was strongly criticized in 1964 for campaigning without any prior political experience. A Post editorial from February 22, 1964, defended Glenn’s decision. The editors cited his Marine Corps service and his many nonpolitical achievements. They also pointed out that Congress desperately needed young, enthusiastic, and inspired Americans like Glenn.
Glenn withdrew from the race for medical reasons shortly after that editorial, but he finally won the Senate race in 1974. The next year, the Post ran “Mr. America in the Senate” by Paul Healy, a lengthy interview with the junior senator. It concluded with an observation by Glenn that is relevant today:
“One of the most frightening things in my campaign was cynicism toward government. It wasn’t all just Watergate — it’s something that I think has been building for years. Polls last year showed a confidence level in Congress of only 26 percent! I think the decline started when the cost of campaigning got so high 12 or 13 years ago, and when the big lobbyists and the big spenders moved in and filled the financial gap. The little guy wonders why he should waste his $25 or $100 on anybody. He feels his voice doesn’t count anymore and he’s alienated.”
His 25-year tenure in the Senate testifies to his ability to make voters feel that they counted. As he once said, “The political graveyards are full of people who don’t respond.”