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Four-Term Sen. Glenn to Reenter Private Life

By Guy Gugliotta 
Washington Post Staff Writer 
Friday, February 21, 1997; Page A04

Thirty-five years after he became the first American to orbit the Earth, Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) yesterday announced he will retire from the Senate rather than seek a fifth term in 1998.

"For all the advances in science and medicine that I have supported and that have occurred in the 35 years since my orbital flight, one immutable fact remains," he told an audience of students and well-wishers at his Muskingum College alma mater in his home town of New Concord, Ohio. "There is no cure for the common birthday." Glenn, 75, said his health "remains excellent," and his "passion for the job burns brightly as ever," but a fifth term "would take me to the age of 83. For that reason -- and that reason alone -- I have decided I will not be a candidate for reelection to the Senate in 1998."

Glenn timed his announcement, expected for several days, for the 35th anniversary of the Feb. 20, 1962, orbital space flight that turned him into a celebrity and launched a public service career that will include 24 years in the Senate and an unsuccessful presidential run in 1984. Even today, noted Muskingum President Samuel W. Speck in introductory remarks, Glenn remains "an authentic national hero."

But the announcement also found Glenn and other senators cooling off after the latest of several bitter partisan exchanges over the conduct of a Senate investigation into fund-raising abuses during the 1996 campaign. The normally even-tempered Glenn, ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee conducting the investigation, has repeatedly lambasted majority Republicans for "hardball" partisanship, accusing them of focusing on Democratic sins while ignoring the GOP. But yesterday he indicated that the "poisonous atmosphere that envelops public service today" encourages him to "stay and fight" rather than decamp. "For me," he said, "politics is not, and never has been, a dirty word."

He did, however, decry those who "measure their patriotism by how often and how viciously they can criticize our government." Glenn himself was pilloried during his 1992 reelection campaign for accepting a $200,000 contribution from convicted savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr.

A Republican-led special commission found Glenn innocent of everything except "poor judgment," but the "Keating Five" affair, along with a still-unpaid $3 million presidential campaign debt, remain the only blemishes on an otherwise gleaming reputation.

Glenn and his wife of 53 years, Annie, are graduates of Muskingum, a small Presbyterian college outside Columbus. Much of Glenn's 46-minute speech in Muskingum's Brown Chapel sounded like a commencement address, focusing on American strengths, deploring cynicism and urging the young to get involved: "Don't take America and the values reflected in our form of government for granted." And in its matter-of-fact and utterly unsentimental tone the speech reflected the homespun values and straight-shooter openness that have marked Glenn's successful career for decades. Glenn left Muskingum in 1942 to join the Navy, served as a Marine fighter pilot in two wars, made the first transcontinental supersonic flight in 1957, and two years later was selected as one of the original seven astronauts.

His three-orbit, five-hour Mercury flight, in the depths of the Cold War and 10 months after the Soviet Union put the first man in space, was monitored on radio and television by 135 million Americans.

Today, astronauts spend their days repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, but in 1962, Glenn told his audience, some doctors were worried "that my eyeballs would change shape." He read an eye chart every 20 minutes to prove them wrong.

The response to Glenn's flight was immediate and massive. Four million people watched his ticker-tape parade in New York, and another 250,000 lined Pennsylvania Avenue as Glenn drove to the Capitol to address a joint session of Congress. Even today, Glenn says people routinely ask him for autographs.

Glenn first won election to the Senate in 1974, and over the years has built a solid reputation as a high-profile government reformer and leading sponsor of laws requiring inspectors general and chief financial officers for federal agencies. He has also won respect for his low-profile work seeking to restrain the export of U.S. nuclear technology.

Glenn's lack of pizzaz, a trait noted the previous year in the movie based on Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," the often uproarious account of the early space program, caused his 1984 presidential campaign to fail early.

Wolfe often pokes fun at Glenn as the super-serious Marine who runs on the beach to keep his weight down, while his hell-raising colleagues spend their time partying. Still, acknowledges Wolfe, it was not the colleagues who made the trip and got the parade.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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