Opinion

Remembering John Glenn, Lawmaker

Modesty and calm sometimes masked killer qualities

John Glenn, D-Ohio, left, and then-Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., during a 1997 Senate Governmental Affairs hearing on improper fundraising in presidential elections. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

John Glenn is my hero and America’s hero, but he was also my boss. Senator Glenn always acted with integrity: in his marriage, in his devotion to his country, in his work with his colleagues. He was always a gentleman in the best sense.

I had the good fortune as a young child to have the measles during his February 1962 flight. We all marveled at his coolness under pressure. Subsequently, we saw all the pictures of him and his wife Annie with President Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy and the brothers, particularly Bobby. They seemed the embodiment of Camelot.

It was part of my dream to work for him and I ended up as an advance man in his 1984 presidential campaign. I got to fly with him and work with him. The senator had a way of reminding folks about his heroism, while being so "right stuff" and self-deprecating at the same time. Joke No. 1 was as he was sitting atop the Atlas rocket waiting for launch, he realized it had been built by the lowest bidder. Joke No. 2 was based on a long-winded speaker lauding him after the historic flight and saying how there “were few truly great Americans.” When he and Annie were driving home and Glenn started talking about this, he said Annie responded, “John Glenn, there is one less Great American than you may think….” We didn't think that ever really happened. All of us saw the couple as a model for how devotion in marriage could work. Their love was a constant for each other and a lesson to all who surrounded them.

But the Senator’s modesty and calm at times masked his killer qualities. Opponents in war or politics knew a different Glenn. We should never forget that John Glenn was one of the youngest Corsair pilots in the Pacific who flew dangerous ground support missions for his fellow Marines in World War II. He followed this by flying jet fighters in Korea, where he became known as “Magnet Ass,” said with affection and respect by his colleagues, for picking up so much shrapnel from enemy anti-air fire and from flying low to the ground supporting the troops. Glenn and the greatest baseball player of all time, Ted Williams, flew together in the last days of the Korean War, and the senator downed Migs with his Sabre.

[John Glenn's Life in Photos]

Those qualities were also on display in what came to be known as the "Gold Star Mothers" speech, during a candidates' forum during the 1974 Senate Democratic primary. Responding to his businessman opponent's contention that Glenn had never met a payroll or held a “job,” he told his opponent to go to a veterans' hospital and "look those men with mangled bodies in the eyes and tell them they didn't hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job." It won him race.

Glenn's presidential campaigns wasn't as successful. We failed to get our Democratic Eisenhower the nomination he deserved, but campaign work was enough to raise me from being an Assistant U.S. Attorney to a swanky job as counsel to what is now the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 1987. Glenn was doing what he always did -- leading a worthy policy effort in success or failure. At leadership's request, the chairman took to the floor in a valiant and doomed attempt to raise federal civil service wages, which had bottomed out at that time in comparison to the private Sector. But it was not a popular issue and we knew it would not succeed. Senator Glenn was pretty popular with his colleagues, and one after another senators spoke out against civil service raises then came over to tell him they would like to be with him but couldn’t. After several hours, his neck and bald spot started to turn red. I had learned this was about the only visible sign his cool, control and laconic fighter pilot calm might be deserting him. Finally, he turned to one senator and quietly replied so only his colleague could hear, ‘Do what’s right for the country." The lawmaker on the receiving end had a shocked look on his face and left pretty quickly. That was the only time in the years I worked for Senator Glenn that I saw him rebuke a colleague.

One time a very old senator who was on occasion losing his grip on memory chewed Senator Glenn out for a position he had taken on the Armed Services Committee. It was harsh and un-senatorial. Barely an hour later, we were back in his Hart Senate Office Building, on a late evening, and the same senator called and asked for a favor. Glenn accommodated him. I was incredulous. My Irish was up from the earlier encounter, and I asked the senator why he did it. He laughed and said the other senator no longer remembered the chewing out, and it did no harm to help him on the matter at hand. Pure Glenn. Generous beyond expectation.

[Former Senator and Astronaut John Glenn Dies at 95]

The senator put together a really respectable body of public policy accomplishments, including addressing nuclear non-proliferation issues that still dog our national security. He insisted on the environmental cleanup of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons complex and an oversight board to look at its safety. He empowered inspectors general and extended the IG coverage to the CIA, to the Justice and Treasury departments and many other federal agencies. He led the legislation giving the VA and the EPA Cabinet-level status. He was a work horse in the Senate, and because he was already a hero, he quietly did the grunt work others didn’t pay much attention to. He accomplished far more in his Senate career than people remember and is the only Democrat in Ohio history to have been elected four times.

The senator always stayed in shape. He ate carefully, usually a bowl of soup and an apple. One day Sens. Dennis DeConcini and Ted Kennedy got in a spat at a meeting where Glenn, Biden and others were working. I was sitting between the two senators who were standing over me and watched Glenn calmly start eating Kennedy’s potato chips, a delicacy he didn’t normally indulge in. The careful upkeep of his body paid off in 1997 when I was able to take my son John, now a counsel in the Senate, to watch the senator’s return to space in the space shuttle. I had come full circle from 1962 to 1997. As always the senator was a teacher and mentor—‘flexibility’ was his mantra for all of us. Of course, he used it to put back on his space suit as they used to call it.

So good bye Senator—we remember your midwestern good looks and the way you rocketed into our lives as a shining example of the duty we all owe our country.        

Stephen M. Ryan served as general counsel of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee under Sen. John Glenn. He is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and Deputy Counsel of the President’s Commission on Organized Crime.

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