Steve Ryan: John Glenn, Senator and hero. Things the public didn’t always see.

Stephen M. Ryan

John Glenn is my hero and America’s hero, but he was also my boss.

Sen. Glenn always acted with integrity: in his marriage to his sweetheart, in his devotion to his country, in his work with his colleagues. He was always a gentleman in the best sense.

I had the good luck as a young child to have the measles during his February 1962 flight.

We all marveled at his flight, and his coolness under pressure. Subsequently, we saw all the pictures of him and Annie with President Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy and the brothers, particularly Bobby, and they all seemed the embodiment of Camelot.

So, it was part of my dream to work for him, and I ended up as an advance man in his presidential campaign.

As an advance man in his 1984 presidential campaign, I went to fly with him and work with him. The Senator had a way to remind folks about his heroism while being so ‘right stuff’ and self-deprecating at the same time.

Joke 1 was his government contract joke: he was sitting atop the Atlas rocket waiting to be launched when he realized it had been awarded to the lowest bidder.

Joke 2 was the hero and marriage joke: after his flight, a speaker was droning on about him and saying how there “were few truly great Americans.”

When he and Annie were driving home, and the Senator started talking about this, and he claimed Annie responded: “John Glenn, there is one less Great American than you may think …”

We all know that this incident was unlikely to ever have happened. All of us saw the Glenns as a model for how devotion in marriage could work. In a movie or real life, their love was a constant for each other and a lesson to all of us surrounding them.

But the Senator’s modesty and calm at times masked his killer qualities. Opponents in war or politics knew a different Glenn. We should never forget that John Glenn was one of the youngest Corsair fighter pilots in the Pacific who flew really dangerous ground support missions for his fellow Marines in World War II. He followed this by flying jet fighters in Korea where he became known as “Magnet Ass,” said with affection and respect by his colleagues, for picking up so much shrapnel from enemy anti-air fire and from flying low to the ground supporting the troops.

Glenn and the greatest baseball player of all time, Ted Williams, who also flew combat in two wars flew together the last days of the Korean War, and the Senator downed Migs with his Sabre.

That same quality was on exhibit when the Senator made his Gold Star debate response:  “In the primary race, his opponent contrasted his strong business background with Glenn’s military and astronaut credentials, implied Glenn had never met a payroll or held a “job.”

Glenn’s impassioned response came to be known as the “Gold Star Mothers” speech. He told his opponent to go to a veterans’ hospital and “look those men with mangled bodies in the eyes 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 tell her that her son did not hold a job.” It won the Senate election.

Well, like most presidential campaigns we ended in failure.

We failed to get our Democratic Eisenhower the nomination he deserved, but campaign work was enough to raise me from being an Assistant U.S. Attorney to a swanky job as counsel to the Senator as Chair of what is now the Homeland Security and Governmental Committee in 1987.

The Senator was doing what he always did–leading a worthy policy effort in success or failure. At leadership’s request, the Chairman took to the floor in a valiant and doomed attempt to raise the federal civil service wages, which had bottomed out at that time in comparison to the private Sector. But it was not a popular issue and he/we knew it would not succeed. It translated into hard seat time for the new Committee Chair, being forced to walk the plank for his colleagues.

My first important time on the Senate floor sitting in a side chair with Senator Glenn was to me the highest honor accorded a government lawyer. Senator Glenn was pretty popular with his colleagues, and Senators spoke out one after another against civil service raises then came over to tell the Senator they would like to be with him but couldn’t.

Finally, after several hours of this, I could see the warning signs: the Senator’s neck and bald spot started to turn red during those conversations. I had learned this was about the only visible sign his cool, control, and laconic fighter pilot calm might desert him. Finally, he turned to one Senator and said quietly (so only the Senator could hear) ‘do what’s right for the country.’

The Senator on the receiving end of that statement had a shocked look on his face, and left pretty quickly. That was the only time in the years I worked for Senator Glenn that I saw him rebuke a colleague.

One time, a very old Senator, who was on occasion losing his grip on memory, chewed Senator Glenn out for a position he had taken on the Armed Services Committee. It was harsh and un-senatorial.

Barely an hour later we were back in his Hart office, on a late evening, and the Senator called and asked for a favor. And Glenn agreed. I was incredulous. My Irish was up from the earlier encounter, and I asked the Senator why he did it—he laughed and said the other Senator no longer remembered the chewing out, and it did no harm to help him on the matter at hand.

Pure Glenn. Generous beyond expectation.

The Senator put together a really respectable body of public policy accomplishments, including addressing nuclear non-proliferation issues that still dog our security.

He insisted on the environmental cleanup of the DOE nuclear weapons complex and an oversight board to look at its safety. He empowered Inspectors General and extended the IG coverage to the CIA, and to the Justice and Treasury Departments and many other federal agencies.

He led the legislation lifting the Veteran Affairs Administration and the EPA from agencies to cabinet type departments. He was a workhorse in the Senate, and because he was already a hero, he quietly did the grunt work other Senators and Chairman didn’t pay as much attention to.

He accomplished far more in his Senate career than people remember and is the only Democrat in Ohio history elected and serving four times.

The Senator always stayed in shape. He ate carefully, usually a bowl of soup and an apple. One day Senators [Dennis] DeConcini and Ted Kennedy got in a spat at a meeting where Glenn, [Joe] Biden and others were working. I was sitting between the two Senators who were standing over me with me between them.

I watched Glenn calmly start in eating Kennedy’s potato chips, a delicacy he didn’t normally indulge in.

The careful upkeep of his body paid off in 1997 when I was able to take my son John (now a counsel in the Senate) to the Senator’s return to space in the space shuttle.

I had come full circle from 1962 to 1997. As always, the Senator was a teacher and mentor — ‘flexibility’ was his mantra for all of us.

Of course, he used it to put back on his space suit, as they used to call it.

So, goodbye Senator — we remember you with the handsome Midwest good looks, and your rocketing into our lives as a shining example of the duty we all owe our country.


Stephen M. Ryan is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law. He is currently a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, DC.

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