Looking to heroes in times of trouble
John Glenn embodied the values that made America great
John Glenn is gone. So are Adlai Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others of a past era of greatness in America. These people were heroes and leaders who captured the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans because of their courage, decency and selfless patriotism. They represented the values that our country should reflect.
But the voices of civility are quickly fading. Where today are the men and women of integrity and civility who can serve as positive role models for the young Americans immersed in a culture dominated by celebrity worship, incivility and partisanship?
What we lost in John Glenn, who died last week at the age of 95, was a man who dedicated his life to serving his country. He was a Marine Corps pilot during World War II, flying 59 combat missions, and then again during the Korean War when he flew 90 missions. After the war years he was a test pilot and then one of the nation’s first astronauts — a mission, let us remember, as potentially dangerous as flying in combat. In February 1962 he thrilled the world by becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. And he went on to serve for 24 years as a respected U.S. senator.
All these achievements have earned Mr. Glenn a permanent place in the history books. And yet in my mind, it is just as important that he always remained a person of dignity, honesty and humility. He never let the public acclaim go to his head. True to his Ohio roots, he always kept his feet on the ground. That, every bit as much as his heroism in space, is what makes him a role model for our troubled times.
Some pundits think it was these very qualities that sank Mr. Glenn’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 — that he was just too decent for the sharp-elbowed world of presidential politics. It’s true that he hated begging contributors for money and that he refused to make promises that couldn’t be kept. But isn’t there something terribly wrong with a system in which people like that don’t have a chance at the White House?
Mr. Glenn’s best-remembered quote describes what was going through his mind as he sat in his space capsule waiting for blastoff (some authorities question whether he actually said this, but I’m convinced he did): “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Those words capture both his coolness under stress and his great sense of humor. But there’s something else John Glenn said that may be even more important to remember: “If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self-interest.”
Let me add to that piece of wisdom a quote from another American hero, Dwight Eisenhower, who led the United States and its allies to victory in Europe in World War II and then served two distinguished terms as president: “This world of ours ... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”
Somehow we as a nation have gotten away from those essential values. We seem to be headed down the path of partisan warfare, fake news stories and post-factual politics. It is time for Americans at all levels to stand up and overcome the nastiness that has marked our national dialogue in recent years. We can begin by looking to the heroes of our past — and embracing once again the values that they upheld and that have made America great.