Farewell to a Statesman

It does feel like the end of something, doesn't it? With the death of John Glenn yesterday, I can’t help but feel that we have lost something priceless. I’m probably overreacting, but when I look around at what passes for leadership in our country today, I don’t see many people who fit the mold of Senator Glenn.

A bona fide American hero, first as a Marine pilot in both World War Two and the Korean Conflict, then as a test pilot, then as the first American to orbit the Earth, Glenn later served four terms as a Democratic Senator from Ohio. These days, when I hear the words “Democratic Senator” (or “Republican Senator,” for that matter), I know just what to expect: a hyper-partisan ideologue who refuses not only to work, but even to socialize, with colleagues across the aisle. I expect obstructionism from the party out of power and a winner-take-all refusal to compromise by the majority party. It makes me sad and frustrated just thinking about it.

" Astronaut U.S. Senator John Glenn " by  NASA on the Commons  is a Creative Commons image with no known restrictions

"Astronaut U.S. Senator John Glenn" by NASA on the Commons is a Creative Commons image with no known restrictions

That is why the passing of John Glenn feels like such a turning point. He was one of the last of a dying breed: a statesman. He represented Ohio and the US under the banner of the Democratic party, but he did not allow a rigid platform or ideology to keep him from doing what he felt was right. He was known to oppose presidents of both parties when he thought their policies were wrong, and he worked to forge compromises with his Republican colleagues.

Throughout his career he championed science and technology, campaign finance reform, nuclear non-proliferation, and protection of the environment. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, he helped stop the Star Wars program and the MX missile, and he sounded the alarm about the environmental damages caused by our country’s nuclear arsenal. His voting record also reflects a commitment to ending racial discrimination, expanding women’s rights, and strengthening education.

But beyond all this, by all accounts John Glenn was a genuinely decent man. He and his wife Annie, whom he used to joke he met in a playpen, were married for more than seventy years, and his stable home life and even temper contrasted sharply with some of his rambunctious “right stuff” comrades in the Mercury program. He was a humble man who did not allow his great fame and success to go to his head. He eschewed public acclaim in favor of public service.

In a time when self-aggrandizement is the order of the day, when elected officials see their office primarily as a means to advance their own careers, when hard work and competence lose out to egoism and grandstanding, it makes the death of John Glenn feel like the end of an era. Public servants and statespersons are not extinct, but they seem much more endangered than they used to.

The motto of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State is “Inspiring Citizenship, Developing Leadership.” We need those things more than ever, now that they seem in such short supply. Here’s hoping that we will see a renewal of public service and citizenship, and that we start growing new leaders in the mold of the great and good John Glenn.