Wednesday, September 19, 2018

What John Glenn meant then and now for the nation

I was only 3 years old when John Glenn orbited the Earth in Friendship 7, so I don't remember the day. But I remember the decade. Of a nation marching as one behind an assassinated president's pledge to land an American on the moon before 1970. Of grade school assemblies where the principal would wheel out the black and white TV so we young students could all watch the latest Gemini launch. Of my G.I. Joe astronaut set that included a Mercury capsule and a 45 rpm record of Glenn's radio communication with Mission Control. Of a Cold War battle that used space exploration as a proxy for combat to measure whether Americans or Soviets were superior. Of a black and white time — not just in our TV sets but in our moral judgments — about right and wrong. Of a nation — and a world — rejoicing when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in July 1969.

Will we have ever have such a single-minded purpose again as a nation — such a clear mission as the Moon Shot? I don't think so. And, actually, I hope not. We are a less naive people now. Vietnam. Watergate. 9/11. Pick your own watershed event. Each changed us. We have become more worldly yet not world-weary. We learned that power has limits and that a wise superpower must learn when to employ it and when to stand down. That same inspirational president, his memory protected for years in the mists of Camelot and hagiographic rememberings, seduced a 19-year-old intern days into her White House job — the memoir is just out. Both sinner and saint. A more realistic portrait of the man. And of us as a people. In the real world, we as a nation can no longer afford a single-minded mission. America must multitask to meet the challenges, domestic and in the world.

More than 20 years after Friendship 7 splashed down, I met John Glenn. He was running for president, and I worked for a small newspaper in the state capital of New Hampshire with its first-in-the-nation primary. The Right Stuff, the movie adaptation of the Tom Wolfe book, had just come out, and some pundits expected it would vault Glenn into the White House. That didn't happen. (Imagine that — pundits who got it wrong.) Glenn himself was a most gracious and decent man. Shorter than I expected. His hand had liver spots, but it sure felt great to shake it. And, wow, he still had the mien of the first American to orbit the Earth. Even though we'll never have such a single national focus again, I'm glad we once did. It gave us people like John Glenn.

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