The New York Times’ obituary for John Glenn, the senator and astronaut, came with more than a dozen photographs, many taken during Glenn’s long tenure in Washington. The photos summon that virtuous era when federal legislators worked together for the good of the country, for the public interest, a time before they had submitted to the craven spasms of cause lobbies.
John Glenn, who died on Dec. 8 at age 95, became an overnight national hero and household name in February, 1962 as the first American to orbit Earth as one of NASA’s Mercury 7 astronauts. In 1974 he was elected to the first of four 6-year terms in the U.S. Senate, a tenure that brought him wide recognition as a moderate Democrat and an expert in weapons systems, nuclear proliferation and its politics, and in legislation covering technology issues, and bureaucratic reform. In those days, members of the senate actually studied certain issues, became knowledgeable, informed their discussion and affected their impact.
The photographs with Glenn’s story convey a sense of attainment and mastery among his senate colleagues. In one of them Glenn is with George McGovern and Joseph Biden during a senate hearing; in another he meets with Robert Byrd, the magnificent majority leader from West Virginia. At that time, the late 1970s, the senate was home to some of the country’s most distinguished public servants. Democrats, who then held the majority (58-42), included Ed Muskie (Maine), Frank Church (Idaho), Edward Kennedy (Massachusetts), Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Alan Cranston (California), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (New York) and William Proxmire (Wisconsin). Only Leahy remains.
Republicans then included names that also ring familiar even today: From Kansas, of course, Dole and Kassebaum; their party colleagues included Tennessee’s Howard Baker (“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”), the learned Richard Lugar (Indiana), Mark Hatfield (Oregon), Jacob Javits (New York), Barry Goldwater (Arizona).
The names ring with nostalgia, with achievement, composure and proficiency. Glenn and his colleagues had collaborated, compromised, affecting changes that have improved our lives immeasurably: Environmental protection. Women’s rights. Strategic Arms Limitation. Sound and intelligent tax reform. Stronger transportation trust funds. Energy conservation. Governmental ethics. The Canal Treaty. The Clean Water Act. And more.
Today’s names are harder to summon. The rolls of non-starters, of laggards and obstructionists, of braggarts and free-riders, comprise a list of agin’ners and deal breakers worthy of little more than the furtive nod one gives to yesterday’s bunglers, delinquents who never learned how to get along – with anyone.
For much too long, our federal legislature has been a repository for corporate hacks, cause lobby apologists and spineless dilettantes whose chief mission is to coddle voters and soothe constituents while bashing the government that bails out their hapless districts and issues them a congressional paycheck.
We have a Supreme Court in limbo; we suffer a sore-head president-elect with loose thumbs, tweeting and twaddling away the few remaining shards of dignity left to the office.
Surely there is a brain or two in the House and Senate, enough at least to fashion some semblance of hope among its dank and venal chambers. Or is there? Unlike in the past, Kansas is unlikely to contribute. But other states have sent one or two reasonably accomplished, independent lawmakers – enough, at least, to get things started if anyone else is willing or wise enough to listen.
John Glenn was elected in the wake of the Watergate national nightmare, calamity that had brought government to its knees.
He and his colleagues, Republican and Democrat, right and left and in-between, were determined that the nation survive, that people acquire new confidence in the institutions that had given them promise and hope. They rescued America, the government that had inspired generations because it actually worked.
It’s past time for the congress to pitch in, to acquire vision, get something done, make a name, an accomplishment, some effective work with more durability than today’s hash tag or yesterday’s talking points. Time to do something meaningful.
Time to make some history. The good kind.