How High Can John Glenn Go?

updated 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Downey, California. John Glenn is at the controls of a Rockwell International Corporation shuttle flight simulator. In this imaginary landing, the shuttle is 15 miles up, an engineless dead weight hurtling at 5,000 mph toward a tiny ribbon of earth at Cape Canaveral. Glenn nurses the craft along as dials spin, needles quiver, and computerized video screens flash and blip with an energy Atari could envy. But at 2,000 feet and falling, something is clearly wrong: The blips are misaligned, the dials are off, and the simulated "earth" is rushing up at an obviously eccentric angle. The Rockwell employee serving as "co-pilot" takes over from the world's most famous astronaut. "All right," he barks into a microphone. "Let's put this one on hold and try again."

A score of photographers, Rockwell officials and local politicos are watching the Democratic Senator from Ohio—and hovering close by are some of his nervous political aides. "I was afraid he was going to crash the space shuttle," jokes Glenn's campaign consultant Gary Caruso. But the 61-year-old Senator, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the earth, is not thinking of politics. He is back at 40,000 feet, bringing the big bird in again. Halfway down, the system that flashes an image of earth in the window screen fails. Glenn keeps bringing the shuttle in on instruments for a perfect landing. The politicians and the Rockwell people break into applause, and Glenn's staff appears relieved. "We're due at the Los Angeles Times in 15 minutes, Senator," a public relations man whispers. But California's most powerful newspaper, a 35-minute drive away, will have to wait. Flashing his world-renowned grin at the simulator crew, Glenn says: "Let's try that again."

John Glenn has come a long way since Project Mercury. The former Marine Corps ace, who flew 149 missions in World War II and Korea, has now set his sights on the highest office in the land. Two fund-raising and organizing committees have garnered $60,000, and Glenn has spent much of this year pressing flesh and testing the prospects of a presidential candidacy. On the stump for some 70 Democratic candidates in the mid-term elections, 80 percent of whom won, he has visited 36 of the 50 states. Says Glenn, who has two months to go before a self-imposed deadline for deciding, "I'm leaning toward running."

Glenn's appeal seems to be bipartisan. Crowds greet him at each appearance, eager just to look at him; for all their accomplishments, neither Ted Kennedy nor Fritz Mondale can boast that a likeness of himself in a space capsule hangs in the Smithsonian. When Glenn enters a room, nostalgia follows. Some onlookers think they recall him as the first American in space (although Alan Shepard was), others think he was the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong). But they all remember him as the symbol of a somehow happier time.

In the stuccoed courtyard of the Mission Inn in Riverside, Calif. last month, the Republican Mayor and City Council—along with a few hundred other dignitaries, a fifth-grade class and a local high school band—turned out to honor the Senator. They sat wide-eyed in the midday sun as a local minister, the Rev. L.B. Moss, delivered himself of a benediction that would make an angel blush. "We thank thee, Lord," he intoned, "for fearless, courageous men of heroic faith, like John Glenn."

The former astronaut still wears the all-American grin that beamed from the pages of LIFE a generation ago. That look of optimism fits a man who took more than 200 direct hits in one air battle over Korea and returned to base nonetheless, who spent five years as a test pilot and saw 13 men from his unit killed and then went on to enter space and come back to talk about it. Perhaps it is that grin, that we've-been-through-worse-and-we-can-get-through-this grin, which enthralls his audiences. After he speaks, he goes up and talks to people, spending a few minutes with each person in a room instead of giving him the politician's standard gotta-go-now handshake. Then he introduces Annie, his wife of almost 40 years, who travels everywhere with him and with whom he raised two now-grown kids, a doctor and a doctor's wife. Then he gives the grin again, and grown men and even Republicans ask for his autograph. "He genuinely enjoys meeting people," Annie explains.

Glenn has been meeting the public since his astronaut days, of course. Although he says he enjoyed his term in the '60s as an executive of the Royal Crown Cola Company, he always seemed to find his way back to the limelight. First there was an NBC-TV series, Great Explorations, in 1968, then an ill-fated stab at a Senate seat from Ohio in 1970. Ohio finally sent him to the Senate in 1974, and while there he has earned a reputation as an expert on foreign affairs and national defense, as well as a hardworking and popular lawmaker. If he has a weakness, it is the Dullness Factor. In 1976, when he gave a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Glenn almost wrote himself out of national politics by delivering what was perhaps the most boring political speech of the television era. Glenn himself calls that address "the bomb in 1976." Now, although Glenn insists he has had no coaching, his competence on the platform has risen markedly. He uses jokes, gestures, even props to make his points. "I'll never be a great, arm-waving political orator," Glenn says. "But I think I've improved."

What Glenn offers his audiences is a blend of patriotic rhetoric ("We are still the nation that everybody looks to as a beacon of hope and freedom and opportunity") and ideas that often sound quite unlike those of the other Democratic candidates. "We concentrate too much on the current problems of the economy," he tells them. "It's good to stop and look at the needs of the future." The themes of his campaign have begun to emerge; although he deplores unemployment with proper Democratic fervor, he also worries about the long-term future of U.S. industry. He advocates special tax cuts for businesses that will produce jobs and investing federal money in basic research, technology and higher education. "We must not become a copycat society," says Glenn. On social issues, his program sometimes seems to stray from the liberal Democratic faith. Over breakfast at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a black Los Angeles official asks Glenn to endorse a federal aid plan for hard-hit inner cities. "No," Glenn says. "There isn't that kind of federal money around anymore."

Not everyone is convinced that Glenn will stay the course. His fund raising is lagging behind the pace set by Kennedy and Mondale, and he lacks the nationwide organization those men have. Says Rep. Tony Coelho (D.-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "Glenn has the star quality, but the jury is out on his ability to organize. That will be decided in the next six months. If he doesn't have it, it will be Kennedy or Mondale." Although both the Massachusetts Senator and the former Vice-President now seem light-years ahead of him in organization, Glenn professes unconcern. "I think that 15 or 16 months is enough time to get my views across in a campaign," he says. And, if some members of his own party may disagree with the assessment, Glenn has found endorsement for that view in at least one unexpected quarter. Sizing up the candidates on the Today show this month, Richard Nixon observed: "John Glenn comes through as a very responsible man with some new ideas.... The man with new ideas is the only one to give Reagan a race."

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