The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three times in his Senate career the late John Glenn really had the right stuff

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest man in space, has died at 95. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

It took astronaut John Glenn a decade to get to Washington, but once he was here, he mostly stayed put for the next 2½ decades — at least, when he wasn't back in orbit.

From 1974 to 1999, Glenn, who died Wednesday at 95, served four terms in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Ohio. In contrast to his flashy, heroic space career, he had a reputation in Washington as more of a behind-the-scenes bipartisan lawmaker; his Senate record is a throwback to an era when dealmaking was still the norm in Washington.

“For all his nine years in Washington, the Senator is still better known as an icon of the Space Age than as a compelling leader whose speeches and legislation shape public and Congressional opinion,” wrote the New York Times Magazine in 1983.

There were low moments, of course, like a Senate Ethics committee declaring he had used “poor judgment” for associating with savings and loan shark Charles Keating in the 1980s deregulation crisis. (In total, five senators were caught up in the scandal.) There was a 1976 Democratic National Convention address that fell flat and cost him the vice presidency, and his failed 1984 run for president that ended with his campaign millions in debt for two decades. Glenn was also on hand with Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

But Glenn's Senate career featured some big highlights. Here are three of the biggest.

1. “It wasn't my checkbook, it was my life that was on the line”

In 1974, during Glenn's third attempt running for U.S. Senate in Ohio, he was again facing his nemesis Sen. Howard Metzenbaum in the Democratic primary. Metzenbaum, a self-made millionaire, had started referring to Glenn as someone who had never held a job. In response, at a city club debate, Glenn delivered one of the most memorable speeches of his political career — and, arguably, the one that made it. Here it is:

I have spent 23 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. I was in two wars. I flew 149 missions. I was in the space program. It wasn't my checkbook, it was my life that was on the line.
You go with me as I went the other day out to a veteran's hospital, look at those men out there with their mangled bodies in the eye and tell them they didn't hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star Mother and you look her in the eye and you tell her that her son did not hold a job. You go to Arlington National Cemetery where I have more friends than I like to remember, and you think about this nation, and you tell me that those people didn't have a job.
I tell you, Howard Metzenbaum, you should be on your knees every day of your life thanking God that there were some men — some men — who held a job. And they required a dedication to purpose and a love of country and a dedication to duty that was more important than life itself. And their self-sacrifice is what has made this nation possible.
I have held a job, Howard.

The crowd erupted in applause.

Glenn went on to defeat Metzenbaum in the primary by eight points and win the Senate seat he'd hold for 2½ more decades. (A decade later, Metzenbaum was again running for Senate and facing a strong challenge from George Voinovich. Glenn — then the most popular politician in Ohio, said Brooklyn College history Professor Robert David Johnson — appeared in an ad defending his old rival and helping him seal a win.)

2. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act is the defining piece of legislation in Glenn's career and of the U.S. commitment to nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

The law basically required that the United States work with countries that had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if they wanted to import U.S. nuclear energy. It was the first U.S. law aimed specifically at promoting global nuclear nonproliferation, and Glenn, along with a handful of other bipartisan lawmakers, wrote it.

When he signed it into law in 1978, President Jimmy Carter said the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act was “a major step forward toward fulfillment of an objective which the United States shares with other nations — a halt in the spread of nuclear weapons capability while preserving the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”

3. A return to space

During his political career, Glenn never stopped looking to the stars. Thirty-six years after his first spaceflight, Glenn eventually convinced NASA to send him up to space again. In 1998, after two years of lobbying, he convinced them to include him in a Discovery space shuttle flight as “a human guinea pig for geriatric studies.”

So on Oct. 29, at age 77, Glenn blasted off again. He was the oldest person to fly in space, but he was not -- as I previously reported -- the first sitting member of Congress to do so. (He was the third.)

Along with six other astronauts, Glenn spent nine days in space, where NASA studied the similarities between aging in space and on Earth — knowledge that may be crucial if humans ever want to live in space for years at a time. A few months afterward, he retired from both the Senate and the space program.

After stepping down in 1998, Glenn founded and occasionally taught at an institute for public policy at Ohio State University, which is now the John Glenn College of Public Affairs.

One of his last trips to Washington came in 2012, at age 90, when President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“He reminds everybody, don't tell him he's lived a historic life,” Obama said as he draped the nation's highest civilian honor around Glenn's neck. “He says '[is] living,' don't put it into the past tense because he still has a lot of stuff going on.”