Sen. John Glenn

Why he’s earned his space vacation.

Washington being Washington and politics being politics, the announcement of Sen. John Glenn’s return to space was the occasion for much sneering. Republicans mocked the space trip as Clinton’s payoff for Glenn’s hackwork during the campaign fund-raising hearings. (“He can go into orbit and stay there,” snapped a Republican congressional staffer.) NASA skeptics added Glenn’s “scientific” mission to the long list of. (Remember when NASA gave shuttle rides to congressional paymasters Sen. Jake Garn and Rep. Bill Nelson?)

But if it’s easy to be cynical about Glenn’s trip, it’s nearly impossible to be cynical about the man himself. Glenn confounds Washington. The armor has no chink. His life proves that in politics virtue can triumph over expediency. Glenn hasn’t sacrificed principle for ambition: That’s his blessing and his curse.

Glenn is as much a careerist as any pol. As Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Right Stuff, Glenn positioned himself carefully to be America’s first astronaut. Selected for the Mercury program in 1959, Glenn paraded his Marine-pilot heroism (149 missions in World War II and Korea), his loving marriage, his religious faith. As it happened, all were genuine. Alan Shepard beat Glenn to space. But Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, became the Mercury superstar anyway. His eloquence, his calm in the face of danger, his small-town-Ohio decency, his boyish freckles–they canonized him. Four million New Yorkers attended his welcome-home parade. He was the Cold War’s greatest hero. (He was so revered that when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Ethel Kennedy asked Glenn to break the news to her children.) And the man is the equal of his image: He is honest, hard-working, faithful, religious, patriotic, a devoted father and a loving husband.

When he entered politics, Glenn vowed that he would never mortgage his reputation for political gain. This pact was more selfless than it sounds: It ensured that America would never be disillusioned about its hero. Thanks to Glenn’s high-mindedness, he’s had a peculiar, worthy, and forgettable political career. Elected to the Senate in 1974, he has devoted himself to important, numbing issues. He’s the Senate’s technocrat. He likes reading General Accounting Office reports. (He is, by his own admission, “dull.”) Glenn helped draft U.S. nuclear-nonproliferation policy. He revels in the nitty-gritty of arms treaties. He is an expert in the science and policy of nuclear-waste storage. He pioneered the idea of reinventing government. Long before Al Gore, Glenn was pushing to cut waste and rationalize government procurement. He has been, in short, an admirable public servant, a solid, stolid senator.

B ut Glenn was supposed to be more. He was to be the Democratic Eisenhower. He and Ike share freckles, a shiny skull, war heroism. But Glenn never commanded troops. He does not know how to lead. Glenn’s vision of the Senate is Platonic: a committee of the wise, elevated above conflict and partisanship, that does what is right for the nation. But bargain and compromise are the fuel of politics. Glenn is a bad horse trader. He makes his own decisions on principle and thinks his colleagues should do the same. He doesn’t do pork-barrel: He delivers goodies to Ohio only when Ohio deserves them. He’s never risen to the top ranks of the Senate because he’s never been able to behave like a normal senator.

Glenn’s scruples (as well as his dullness) also doomed his quest for the presidency. His 1984 campaign is a model of how to blow an election. Glenn entered the Democratic race with enormous advantages: He had 100-percent national name recognition and a stellar reputation. The movie of The Right Stuff, which lionized Glenn, opened just before primary season. He was a centrist in a field of liberals. But he tanked it. He was a terrible fund-raiser, largely because he didn’t suck up to donors. More importantly, he failed to inspire voters. Glenn can’t master the glib sound-bite rhetoric that characterizes politics. He believes that speeches should explain facts as much as excite emotion. (Glenn, notoriously, is a politician who gets more applause when he’s introduced than when he leaves.) In 1984, he was soporific on the stump, boring crowds with endless details of energy policy and SALT negotiations. After polling neck and neck with Walter Mondale, Glenn finished sixth in the Iowa caucuses, well behind Undecided. He also managed to lose every state in the Super Tuesday primary before quitting the race.

Any 20-year political career has its scars, and Glenn’s is no exception. But here, too, he may deserve the benefit of the doubt. He still carries a $3-million debt from his presidential campaign. His reluctance to fund raise partly explains the nonpayment of debt. A normal politician would have “invited” corporate allies to a few fund raisers, cleared the debt, and reciprocated with a few favors. Glenn is allergic to such politicking. He has also taken too much abuse for his membership in the Keating Five. He accepted more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from S & L crook Charles Keating, and arranged a meeting for Keating with then-House Speaker Jim Wright. The Senate Ethics Committee found Glenn guilty of “poor judgment.” But Glenn seems to have been oblivious rather than sleazy: “He was simply helping a constituent. It probably never occurred to him that he was doing anything wrong. He was genuinely shocked that people saw venality in his behavior,” says John Green, a political-science professor at the University of Akron.

Last Feb. 20, on the 35th anniversary of his space shot, Glenn announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 1998. The 76-year-old is increasingly out of place in the Senate, which is a more unfriendly place than when he entered it. He’s awkward in opposition: There is too much sniping for him and not enough legislating. Glenn’s performance in the campaign fund-raising hearings last fall highlighted his unhappiness with his job. It was the low moment of his career. He stonewalled and disrupted the Republicans at every turn, contending that the investigation was ignoring GOP wrongdoing. He did his party duty obediently, but his own partisanship made him uncomfortable. He seems to know that he doesn’t belong in the increasingly nasty, uncollegial Senate.

But he does belong on the shuttle. Yes, the ostensible reason for the mission–aging research–is dubious. And NASA’s budgetary whoring is unseemly. And the appeal to public sentiment is shameless. So what? Glenn has spent 36 years protecting the five hours of his life he spent in space, 36 years living up to an impossibly heroic image. He has done it admirably. His first trip into space was work. Doesn’t he deserve a vacation there?