The death Thursday (12-8-16) of John Glenn at 95, first American astronaut to orbit the earth in space, reminded me of how different it is now than then, then being the early 1960s. It was an exciting and exhilarating time. We had a young Democratic Party president from a super-rich family who did not see government as the enemy but more of an engine to do good for a nation on the move. And he did not spend time bragging on himself (even if his father had bragged on him).
I don’t recall Glenn bragging on himself either, it was just apparent. It did not need to be said.
President John F. Kennedy declared that we would land a man on the moon within the decade, and we did, and this was done by the government, but that government mission also had a major spinoff of so many uses and products in the private sector. And think of all the government contracts for private industry — all the employment. But only government could have gone out on a limb to do this.
The populace as a whole was not anti-government but it did buy into the argument during the new president’s campaign that our country was in stagnation and needed to move forward. There was an economic recession. And the Democrats argued that we had fallen behind the Soviets in missile technology and production and the space race during the Republican Eisenhower administration. In 1957 the Soviets had shocked the world by launching the first space satellite. It looked like they had surpassed the U.S.
I remember the family going out into our backyard in the Central Valley of California and watching Sputnik pass overhead like a moving star.
But the reality was that we were not really behind, maybe just a bit more cautious. For one thing, the Russians had sent up some capsules previous to their official flights, with dogs and reportedly even with at least one human cosmonaut, who did not survive. We sent up at least one chimpanzee before sending a man up. Both the chimpanzee and the man made it back.
But then after the Soviet Union beat us in manned flight into space, we soon sent Allan Shepard up and then Gus Grissom, both flights simply going up and then down, and then John Glenn, who actually orbited the earth. We were solidly back in the game and took the lead over the Soviet Union.
Glenn was lucky he made it back to earth. On the way down the heat shield on his capsule was disintegrating. He could feel the heat and see the sparks or flames, but later said he knew the only thing to do was to keep calm and apply his training — if the worst happened it would be over in an instant.
JFK of course was assassinated in 1963. But in 1969 we were the first and only nation to put a man on the moon.
All this glory thanks in large part to a president who had been a World War II hero and astronauts like Glenn, veterans too. Glenn served in both WWII and the Korean War.
Glenn went on to be a U.S. Senator from Ohio, a member of the Democratic Party, but a centrist in public policy for most of his long tenure, and he had other successful endeavors throughout his life. By all accounts he was an unassuming man, more given to hard work and service to his country, not so much boasting.
Today we have a billionaire headed to the White House who made his money by questionable means and who is boastful and who is disrespectful to the institutions of government and to war veterans — bashing John McCain, who served years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war and refused to succumb to their propaganda trick of offering him an early release so they could make it look like the son of a Navy admiral got special treatment and maybe even betrayed his country.
President-elect Donald Trump claimed he was not impressed with McCain because he got captured. Trump dodged his way out of the service during Vietnam. Trump also insulted the family of a fallen American soldier in the war in Iraq. Trump may or may not have rescinded some of his remarks in both cases or had others do it for him, I forget, but that is what he does when someone criticizes him or he thinks they did — he lashes out like a child, usually on the social network device of Twitter, where you can spew out random thoughts without thinking in an instant for the world to see.
I can’t imagine such actions from the likes of JFK or Glenn or men of that stature.
Our society has changed. It seems we no longer revere such people or there are few such people to revere.
Trump says he will “make America great again”.
But I think it is the likes of people as him that is threatening our decline.