The historian on her new book about the Ohio-born astronaut and senator, the nature of heroes and what Glenn would think of our current political moment
Nearly three years after she started researching her book—and nearly four years after the death of John Glenn—Alice George’s biography of the senator and astronaut will be released next week by the Chicago Review Press. George, a veteran journalist and historian who’s previously written books about the Kennedy assassination and the Cuban Missile Crisis, was drawn to the heroic nature of Glenn’s story, as well as his encounters and relationships with newsmakers like Charles Lindbergh, Ted Williams and Bobby Kennedy, who became close friends with Glenn and his wife, Annie, following the assassination of Bobby’s brother, John F. Kennedy.
When Glenn died in 2016, George was struck by the heroic descriptions of Glenn in almost all of his obituaries, a treatment that countered the widespread cynicism of modern life. “We are now quite inclined to focus on a person’s errors and to think that it’s impossible for a flawed human being to claim heroic status,” George says. “Consequently, I found it fascinating that there was near-unanimity on Glenn’s heroism.”
Recently, George answered questions via email from Columbus Monthly about Glenn, her book, “The Last American Hero: The Remarkable Life of John Glenn,” and what the former Columbus resident would make of our current tumultuous political times.
Why is John Glenn's memory still relevant?
I think it’s important to remember a time when Americans were willing to face great and almost unimaginable challenges. When Glenn flew into orbit, he confronted a long list of mysteries that his flight would answer. While Soviet cosmonauts had orbited the Earth, their space program was secretive, and their scientists did not share what they had learned. Minute-by-minute coverage of Glenn’s flight opened up his unique experience to people around the world. And this flight was made as an early step toward achieving a goal that had been only a dream just a few years earlier—reaching the moon. In 2020, with the United States among the nations least prepared to tackle COVID-19, it is sometimes difficult to remember the days when we were willing to apply our science to tackling huge tasks. America’s can-do attitude seems like a distant memory today.
What's different about this book than the many others already out there about Glenn and the U.S. space program?
One biography of Glenn was written in the 1980s when he was running for president. Beyond that, the only book-length source of biographical material on Glenn’s life is his memoir, published in 1999. While the autobiography is a good one, Glenn was a humble man who did not seem to grasp how amazing many facets of his life were. All of the Mercury astronauts except Gus Grissom produced memoirs, but their individual memories about the Mercury program are quite different. (A biography of Grissom was published after his death in a 1967 launchpad fire on Apollo 1.) The best book on the beginning of the space program remains Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” which tells the story of the Mercury astronauts as well as some of the notable test pilots who preceded them. This 1979 book is a great one, but it does not focus on Glenn alone and seems content with portraying him as a stereotypical churchgoing, virtuous man who is surrounded by a gang of rowdy and promiscuous daredevils. Also, this book does not cover Glenn’s political career or his second spaceflight.
In what ways did Glenn's childhood in Ohio shape who he became?
Glenn’s youth in New Concord was framed by a patriotic narrative of the nation’s history. He carried this with him throughout his service in two wars, in the space program, and in the United States Senate. He never became jaded by his fame, and for more than half of his life, he stopped to sign autographs for people, no matter what his schedule. He felt honored that Americans found something special in the two words that made up his name. Many of his friends and colleagues who traveled with him around the world have noted that one of his unique qualities was the ability to treat kings and cabbies in exactly the same way. I think that was a reflection of the kind of upbringing he received in small-town Ohio.
In the prologue, you write, "In an age almost devoid of heroes, he became an anomaly, the last of his kind in an antiheroic age—a man with both physical courage and moral conviction." Why is he the last of his kind?
I believe that he is the last of his kind—at least in the nation’s current mindset—because a cynical America embraces news about scandals more than it honors deeds of great courage. Our only heroes today are fictional superheroes, not living, breathing human beings. While COVID-19 has made first responders and medical workers heroes to many Americans, others dismiss the virus, refuse to take basic safety precautions and show no admiration for those who risk their lives daily to save others.
It was interesting to read about how close Glenn became with Bobby Kennedy, even though, in many ways, they were so different. What was the connection between them?
They met while President Kennedy was alive, but the friendship really blossomed after his assassination. I believe that Robert Kennedy changed after he lost his brother and became a more contemplative man. That, alongside their shared devotion to religion, simplified a friendship with Glenn. Both were curious people. Glenn believed curiosity had driven Americans to cross the frontier and to rise to world leadership. Kennedy, perhaps anticipating a short life, often peppered dinner party guests with personal questions and loved to hear stories from people who had achieved feats he probably never would. By talking to Glenn, Kennedy could vicariously experience life as a pilot and astronaut as well as garnering new insights about small-town, middle-class lives. Each believed in strong male friendships and valued his wife’s role within and outside the family. These common attitudes enabled the two couples to link arms and enjoy each other’s company.
Though he remained popular nationally and a successful Ohio politician, why did Glenn's presidential aspirations not pan out?
Glenn had a unique idea about how to run a presidential campaign [in 1984]. He wanted to take the campaign to the country as a whole rather than focusing on the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which begin the political season. Consequently, he didn’t make a hard push in either state and finished badly in both contests. These huge defeats made him look more like a loser than a winner as he headed into the contests that interested him most—the Super Tuesday primaries scattered around the nation. As a result, he won none of these races.
Moreover, Glenn’s campaign was run by “hired guns” rather than longtime allies. As a result, they sometimes misinterpreted the senator’s positions, and they spent campaign money recklessly. Meanwhile, Glenn’s leading competitor—and the eventual nominee—was Walter Mondale, who had a well-oiled political machine supporting his efforts and lining up backing from important interest groups. Glenn later said that as a presidential candidate he was like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
What do you think Glenn would make of our current political moment?
I think that Glenn would be horrified by much of what we see before us today. A presidential debate in which one candidate interrupts the other more than 70 times certainly would fall outside his sense of propriety. He loved the United States and felt that we could be a strong world leader if we did not allow politics to blind us. I think Glenn would be horrified to see how COVID-19 has ravaged the nation, which has failed to unite in this battle. Like the plan to reach the moon, I think Glenn would have seen the virus as a scientific problem to be solved, and he would have expected all Americans to rally around those scientists and do whatever they could to combat the disease. After the discomfort he endured as a Mercury astronaut in a tiny capsule, I’m sure that he would find it difficult to understand why some Americans are unwilling to accept the small inconvenience of wearing a mask to protect themselves and others.
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