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We've lost an American hero

John Herschel Glenn- legendary test pilot, the first American to orbit the Earth, longtime U.S, Senator, and the man I supported for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination- has died at the age of 95.

I consider having met him and shaken his hand at Humbolt, Iowa during the campaign leading up to the 1984 Iowa Caucuses one of the greatest honors of my life. While I didn't always agree with his politics in later years, I've always thought the Democrats missed a bet in 1984. The less-informed about him thought that his career as an astronaut was his main claim to the presidency. In fact, he was one of the most knowledgeable people on Capitol Hill, an expert on defense policy and (as one might expect) on scientific policy, and a man possessed of integrity, a sharp and inquiring mind, and an understanding of the world in the declining days of the 20th Century which few of his colleagues could match. He would not have beaten Ronald Reagan, nor, I would say at this point in my life, should he have done so. Yet if he had he would have made a much better president than some who have been elected to the Oval Office since.

He is survived by the love of his life, Annie, aged 96, An accomplished organist who worked tirelessly for children with hearing and speech impediments, she herself had a severe stuttering problem. John's protection of her despite the intrusiveness of politicians and the media during the period surrounding his historic three-orbit journey in on February 20, 1962, was one of the most touching and powerful vignettes in a great movie that should have done far better at the box office, "The Right Stuff." Based on Tom Wolfe's book of the same name, it was released during the early stages of the 1984 campaign and told the inside story of Glenn and the other six Mercury astronauts. But surveys showed that many didn't see it because they mistakenly thought it was about politics.

One of America's best combat pilots during the Korean War, the "MiG-Mad Marine" won no fewer than five Distinguished Flying Crosses. He first vaulted into the history books on July 16, 1957, when he completed history's first supersonic transcontinental flight in a Vought FBU 3-P Crusader, going from the Naval Air Station at Los Alamitos, California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes, and 8.3 seconds. He had refueled in mid-flight. But he later became the first to make the trip without refueling, in the process taking the first continuous panoramic photograph of the United States. For this, he was awarded a sixth Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also one of the 28 Americans to be awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

A passionate supporter of John F. Kennedy, Glenn was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 He served with distinction for 21 years. He left office doing the same thing that made him a public figure: orbiting the earth. In 1998, Glenn, having declined to seek re-election, became a "lame duck" while in space, serving as a payload specialist on the SS-95 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery while Republican George Voinovich was being elected to fill his seat. The author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of  1978 and chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Glenn also served as ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees as well as its Special Committee on Aging- a resume for which Glenn was seldom given due credit because he had won his fame as an astronaut, not as a statesman. The one shadow of a smudge on his career was that he was among five senators initially under suspicion in the Keating Loan Scandal  in 1989. But Glenn, along with Sen. John McCain, was exonerated.

Glenn was the last surviving Mercury astronaut. Whatever one thinks of his politics, there can be no doubt that he was a great American who served is country loyally and well and to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude.

And in case you're too young to remember...


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