It is late February 1984. We are in the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester between Wong’s Egg Rolls and Papa Gino’s pizza place. The crowd is gigantic.
Twenty-two years earlier, John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth. We thought his name and that moment would live forever.
Now Glenn was running for president. And as he made his way through the huge crowd, I followed a few yards behind him. I asked people a very simple question as soon as he moved on: “Who is the man whose hand you just shook? What did he do to make him famous?”
“I remember sitting in front of the TV and watching him,” Eve Romagnoli of Laconia, New Hampshire, tells me.
Watching him do what? I ask.
“Uh, well, it was something to do with that astronaut business. I know that,” she says.
“He went up with them others,” her husband, Rudy, says. “I know he didn’t go up alone. There was three of them. Or two.”
Glenn went up alone. But where did he go?
“The moon?” Rudy asks. “He walked on there?”
Naw, that’s not it,” says Eve.
Right next to the Romagnolis, jammed together, were four young women in puffy ski jackets, corduroy slacks and shoes with wildly colored laces. They were all 17 but would be 18 by Election Day and intended to vote.
They had seen numerous political commercials on TV but now wanted to see all the candidates on the hoof before making up their minds.
What makes this one famous? I ask them.
“Beats me,” Kathy Olsen says. “I wasn’t even born 22 years ago. Did Glenn do something famous then?”
“Didn’t he go up in a capsule?” Colleen Nealon asks.
“He was an astronaut,” says Judy Mullins, “or something.”
“Is it important?” Michelle Rooney asks. “I mean, does it matter?”
Ah, now that is the question. And we have precious few heroes to experiment on.
Many thought John McCain, a naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam and imprisoned and tortured for 5 1/2 years, was a hero. McCain was offered his freedom by his captors but refused it because it was not his turn to be released.
Heroic? Not to some.
Donald Trump, who never served a day in the military, had this to say last year of McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Trump also refused to apologize for his statement.
John Glenn was a Marine pilot who flew 149 missions in World War II and Korea, earning five Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Air Medal with 18 clusters.
After orbiting the Earth, he rode in a New York ticker tape parade where 4 million people turned out to cheer him. His accomplishments were included in a book and a movie. Some political handlers decided he represented everything Americans say they want in a president: honor, bravery, honesty, fidelity, sacrifice and commitment.
So Glenn ran for president. And he got creamed.
In 1984, I had a hard time finding people who even remembered him. Ronald Reagan, who played a hero in the movies, was the American ideal of a hero. Glenn did not look like a real hero or sound like one. His speeches were pretty bad. He was not a talker or particularly emotional in an era when talking about your emotions was of the utmost importance.
Glenn ran in a number of presidential primaries in 1984, but he didn’t win any. By the time he dropped out, his campaign debt was in the millions.
At age 77, having been U.S. senator for 24 years, he persuaded NASA to let him go up on a shuttle mission one last time. After passing all the tests, he did so in 1998.
He left the Senate in 1999 and remains the oldest person ever to travel in space. He died last week at age 95.
Back in 1984, under a gray, chill sky, I asked him how he felt about the anniversary of his first flight.
He looked at his watch. “I was just going into my second orbit about now,” he said.
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