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John Glenn Had Worst Timing In Presidential Politics

Image: John Glenn Had Worst Timing In Presidential Politics

 Sen. John Glenn runs for president in 1983. (AP)

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Sunday, 11 Dec 2016 11:37 AM Current | Bio | Archive

John Glenn, who died Thursday at age 95, was a larger-than-life hero as America had in the late 20th Century: a decorated U.S. Marine air ace in World War II and Korea, the first man to orbit the earth, and U.S. Senator from Ohio.

But the next natural final chapter to his life story — that of "John Glenn, president of the United States"— was never to be written.

When it came to national politics, the spaceman-senator had perhaps the worst timing of anyone. The resume was gilt-edged, the candidate was out of Central Casting, but Glenn’s best opportunities were lost in bad circumstances.

A Republican who was urged to seek office in Ohio in the 1960’s by State GOP Chairman Ray Bliss, Glenn was persuaded to become a Democrat by President John F. Kennedy. In 1964, he announced he was leaving the astronaut program and running for the Senate from the Buckeye State.

Nomination and election in a very Democratic year seemed to be Glenn’s for the asking. Had he entered the Senate in 1964, Glenn might very well have emerged on a national ticket by 1968 — very possibly, as a running mate with Robert Kennedy, who had become a close friend.

But it was not to be. The former astronaut was forced out of the race following a freak accident in which he injured his inner ear.

In 1970, Glenn again seemed a strong bet for the Senate, which would have put him in position to seek national office in the future. But he was upset in the primary by millionaire parking lot magnate Howard Metzenbaum, who spent heavily on a media blitz.

Four years later, Glenn finally made it to the Senate and, in the process, avenged his loss to old foe Metzenbaum (who had lost the general election in 1970 and been appointed to fill a vacancy in Ohio’s other Senate seat). Challenged by Metzenbaum as to whether he ever "had a job," an angry Glenn invited his opponent to meet the mothers and widows of fellow veterans who had given their lives for their country and concluded "I have had a job." He beat Metzenbaum with 54 percent of the vote.

But Glenn did not show the same fire when he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976. Considered the favorite to be the vice presidential candidate with presidential nominee Jimmy Carter, Glenn was passed over in favor of Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale.

Daughter Amy cried, Carter later recalled, because she "wanted an astronaut" on the ticket.

Glenn-watchers still wonder why their hero made his long-awaited presidential bid in 1984, when he would have had to face popular Republican President Ronald Reagan, instead of ’88, when the presidency would be open.

As it turned out, Glenn’s bid for nomination as a pro-defense centrist and all-American hero ("He’s our Ike," beamed House Speaker Tip O’Neill) sputtered badly. Moderates found themselves a younger alternative in Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Old-line liberals and organized labor rallied to former Vice President Walter Mondale and put him over the top. Glenn was left with a debt of $3 million that would dog him for more than a decade.

"John Glenn seemed the most obvious favorite [for vice president in 1988]," wrote veteran political reporters Jack Germond and Jules Witcover. But presidential nominee Michael Dukakis passed over Glenn for Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Their ticket lost badly in November.

"If they had taken John Glenn for the vice presidential nomination, you’d have had a relatively close election," recalled the late Lee Atwater, campaign manager for winning Republican George H.W. Bush, "That would have stymied our whole campaign because I doubt that we would have seriously tried to compete in Ohio….It was a totally irrational political decision [to pass over Glenn for Bentsen]."

So many "ifs," "buts," and "might haves" surround the never-realized national potential of John Glenn. He was clearly meant to do a lot of great things in his amazing life. But being elected president was not one of them.

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John Glenn, who died Thursday at age 95, was a larger-than-life hero as America had in the late 20th Century: a decorated U.S. Marine air ace in World War II and Korea, the first man to orbit the earth, and U.S. Senator from Ohio.
hero, john glenn, bad timing, politics
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2016-37-11
Sunday, 11 Dec 2016 11:37 AM
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