Not John Glenn


Leonard Zwelling

         It is very difficult to convey to those under fifty what John Glenn meant to Americans of my age. In fact, even after his death, his courage, his bravery, his accomplishments and his “right stuff” continue to awe and inspire.

         The details of his extraordinary life are related in the obituary above, but John Glenn’s importance cannot be overestimated. He is an American hero on the level of Charles Lindbergh because he faced the dangerous unknown and never flinched. And as with comedy, timing is everything.

         In February of 1962, the United States was clearly trailing in the Space Race with the Soviet Union. America had sent two astronauts into space but these were short sub-orbital downrange rides that followed launches of Russian cosmonauts who had orbited the Earth. The American space program was very public. All the failures were on the news. And there were a lot of exploding rockets and flight delays raising the skepticism of the public as to NASA’s ability to fulfill the real Moon Shot pledge of President Kennedy.  This transparency of our program was in stark contrast to that of the Soviets which was shrouded in mystery and seemingly continued progress and success.

         Then finally, John Glenn successfully orbited the globe three times and thrust us back on track with the Soviets and, in July of 1969, it was the United States that triumphed by putting men on the moon and bringing them safely back home.

         It was many years after that 1962 flight before John Glenn was allowed back into space. He had been judged too valuable an icon to risk in orbit by President Kennedy. He flew on the Shuttle in 1998 becoming the oldest person in space. In between he was a businessman and U.S. Senator and perhaps more stunningly was married to the same woman, Annie, for 73 years.

John Glenn was the essential American of the Space Age. He continues to be an American inspiration.

         What struck me as so notable about his passing was the obvious lack of people like Senator Glenn as inspirational today as he was, particularly in areas where they are so desperately needed.

         The man just elected President of the United States is not only not an inspiration, he may well prove to be the ultimate American embarrassment. If he continues to lose in his own new TV show called “The Appointment” as he seems to be doing with his picks for important positions in the government (a wrestling magnate? A climate change denier?, Ben Carson? General Flynn? Steve Bannon?). I am less worried that the government will be making wrong turns than it will simply stall out for lack of competent drivers.

         And as for my other favorite President Du Jour, The Ronald,  (see Cancer Letter of December 9), he seems to be about as clear about his Moon Shot as those Soviets were about their space program in the 1960s. IACS is still out there spending money at unknown rates and contracts are being signed to commit MD Anderson to potential additional expenses yet the President wants clinicians to pull extra clinic duty and to cut Christmas parties. Once again I say, the beatings will continue until morale improves.

         Neither Mr. Trump nor Dr. DePinho is an effective leader. We know this is true of Dr. DePinho and fear it will also be true of Mr. Trump. We shall see. But for certain, neither of them is an inspiration. Neither has the right stuff. Neither is John Glenn.

         Dale Butland captured the real John Glenn in Saturday’s NY Times. Worth a read:

         John Glenn led by his deeds and his humility. Today’s leaders are a far cry from John Glenn.

Leonard Zwelling