COLUMBUS: John Glenn’s failure to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 was a rare failure in a life of achievements unmatched not just in Ohio history but probably in the history of the United States.
Who else has been a decorated hero of two wars, the first American to orbit the Earth and finally a statesman, the only Ohioan elected to four terms in the U.S. Senate?
Through it all, however, Glenn was a workhorse, not a show horse.
Democrats had rejected Glenn as their presidential candidate, but the party, which hadn’t always treated him fairly, needed him.
So in October 1984, I joined Glenn on a four-county, 14-hour day barnstorming for Democratic candidates. The trip took us to such exotic places as Ridgeville Corners, a northwestern Ohio farming community.
“I had planned to be in the final stages of a presidential campaign,” Glenn, in his matter-of-fact way, told me back then. “But that was not to be, so you adjust and that’s that.”
Glenn, of course, flew his own plane, a two-engine Beech Baron.
He campaigned for candidates for the state legislature and Congress and put in a good word for the Mondale-Ferraro presidential ticket.
It was a measure of Glenn’s celebrity that he couldn’t escape Republicans who hoped the “Right Stuff” would rub off on them.
At the Fremont Airport in Sandusky County, Gene Damschroder, the airport manager, popped up to greet Glenn before the Democrat he had come to campaign for could whisk him away. Damschroder, a former GOP state legislator known for unsuccessful efforts to force welfare mothers to be sterilized, was seeking his old office back after losing a 1982 primary.
The best description of the celebrity Glenn brought to any event came from Gene Branstool, a former state legislator and Ohio Democratic Party chairman. Branstool recalled riding with Glenn in a United Way parade and realizing nobody was paying attention to him.
“I could have been there without a stitch of clothes on, and nobody would have known,” Branstool said.
The campaign swing with Glenn was exciting when compared to covering the senator in Washington. He never got the hang of self-promotion but was willing to do important but unglamorous work in the Senate.
He quietly became the chamber’s expert on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. He dug into technical reports on the environmental and health risks posed by the storage of nuclear weapons and demanded that cleanups get started.
He tirelessly battled “waste, fraud and abuse” and sponsored legislation that put a chief financial officer in every government agency.
There were few things more frustrating than a Glenn press conference. He was too reasonable, and reasonable men and women get scant attention in Washington. Every time he would declare something or somebody rotten, he’d have second thoughts and tone down the outrage.
Glenn wasn’t perfect. He had trouble retiring his debt from the failed presidential campaign and was cited for “poor judgment” — but nothing worse — by the Senate Ethics Committee for his dealings with savings and loan executive Charles Keating.
Glenn had such a reservoir of goodwill that none of this mattered. My dad, a retired factory worker in Michigan, liked to read my stories about politics and Washington and seldom corrected me. But he warned me: Lay off John Glenn.
My dad was not Glenn’s fiercest protector. That was his wife Annie, who may have been with us on that barnstorming day although I can’t say for sure. They were lifelong sweethearts since meeting in a playpen or crib in New Concord as toddlers.
“I’m a great believer in Bob Hope,” Glenn once told me when Annie was in the room. “You know Bob Hope’s statement. Bob Hope says why go out looking for oleo when you got butter in the ice box.”
Annie felt the same way.
“I think I had one date [other than John] in college,” Annie said. “I don’t remember who it was with.”
“You never told me,” her sweetheart said in mock outrage.
Glenn was as proud of Annie for overcoming a stuttering problem as she was of him for his exploits as a pilot, astronaut and senator.
He was her constant protector, even from the vice president of the United States. There were delays before Glenn’s historic 1962 spaceflight, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to commiserate with Annie.
She had a migraine headache and didn’t want to see LBJ. Space officials suggested Glenn might be replaced if there was no meeting with the vice president.
“I said when you guys have your press conference and announce I’ve been replaced, I’ll call my own press conference,” said Glenn. He went off to take a shower and was not replaced.
For all his achievements, Glenn was publicly self-effacing and always tried to make others feel better. He even made me his “co-pilot” on the campaign swing, although I’m sure my control was limited.
As we headed back to Washington, after that day on the campaign trail, Glenn was in charge, guiding his airplane as lights from the farms below sparkled in the clear night.
“I really love this,” said Glenn.
Not as much as he loved Annie, of course.
William Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.