Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


When the Right Stuff Is the Wrong Politics

By Godfrey SperlingStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 1997



'The quiet, modest hero walked around the breakfast table as he shook hands with some 30 reporters but never showing much emotion. This was the man who was the idol of the nation 20 years ago as he became the first human to orbit in space. However, now the question was being asked in varying ways, but persistently: Is the cool, unflappable personality that made John Glenn a great astronaut what the country now is looking for in a President?"

Skip to next paragraph

That's how I led off with a column on Aug. 16, 1982, right after Senator Glenn had attended a Monitor breakfast where he let us know that he was going to run for President in 1984.

We soon learned back then that the man who had the right stuff to conquer space would not be able to persuade the voters that he should be their president.

Returning to another Monitor breakfast the other day the senator, who was looking back on his long senatorial career which will end with his current term, responded with a quip when asked why he hadn't been able to "make it" in the primaries of '84.

"I didn't get enough votes," he said with a smile. Then he added that he simply hadn't put out enough effort and that his campaign had been poorly organized.

When we journalists filed out of that 1982 breakfast, I conducted a quick poll of a number of them. My question was short: "Could Glenn win?"

The answers were all the same: These keen observers of the political scene thought that nothing could stop this great hero who, also, had proved himself to be a formidable vote-getter in Ohio.

Actually, Glenn was hurt politically by something he said at that '82 breakfast.

He had been asked, "What has caused the big federal deficit?" and had given this answer: "The past 40 to 50 years of social programs gave us some of it. Some programs have gotten away from us and become a burden. And we have lagged in not correcting these programs."

Someone then asked: "Did this observation include possibly correcting the Social Security program?"

Glenn said it did, adding that alternative approaches should be examined.

Well, somehow or other, that Glenn comment - which merely meant that Glenn wanted to find ways to strengthen Social Security, a program which he fully favored - became twisted by his political adversaries into a charge that these words amounted to a surprising disclosure that Glenn was looking favorably on privatizing Social Security.

Anyway, a lot of older voters turned their backs on Glenn simply because - influenced by this false story - they thought Glenn was against Social Security.

Glenn wasn't beaten on that issue alone; but it hurt him badly and so very unfairly.

Frankly, I thought that Glenn would go "all the way" in '84, that the public would embrace this hero and able senator..

But what reporters saw in New Hampshire, as they watched Glenn meet with the voters in that primary state, was a candidate who just wasn't "turning on" the voters.

It was sad, this voter turndown of such an outstanding man.

At our recent breakfast Glenn said he simply wasn't going to let that defeat bother him for the rest of his life. However, it was clear that the rejection still hurt.

But, to me, my sadness is mainly directed at the American people, who demand personality and flair in their candidates and look away from quality people who don't have charisma.

We're clearly the losers when candidates like Glenn and Richard Lugar - among a very few public figures of that caliber - don't interest us.

So Glenn is leaving us, a senator well-loved and highly respected by his colleagues and, I must say, by the press, too.

But I'll always regret that the voters nationally gave the cold shoulder to this quiet, unflappable, modest fellow who had so demonstratively proved his mettle in the sky and in public life.