Ohio Public Policy Archives

John Glenn: Political Career

John Glenn's political career began in January 1964 when he resigned from his assignment as a Mercury astronaut with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and retired from the U.S. Marines Corps to enter the Democratic primary in Ohio for a seat in the U.S. Senate. This first attempt at a career in politics turned out to be short-lived. Less than a month into the campaign Glenn suffered a traumatic head injury as a result of a fall in his home. The injury left him bedridden with severe vertigo and unable to campaign. His wife, Annie, along with Rene Carpenter, the wife of fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter, attempted to carry on the campaign by giving surrogate speeches at scheduled events throughout the end of February and into March. By the end of March, however, Glenn conceded the fact that his injury, which doctors said would take him close to a year to recover from, would make it impossible for him to campaign. Unable in person to inform voters of his position on public policy issues and not wanting to be voted for solely on his fame as a Mercury astronaut, Glenn dropped out of the race on March 31, 1964.

Glenn eventually made a full recovery from his injury. He spent a great deal of the nine months of convalescence required to regain his health reading through his mail. Glenn received tens of thousands of letters following his historic space flight aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft on February 20, 1962. He received tens of thousands more in response to his decision to enter politics and in reaction to his accident and injury. While recovering from his injury, Glenn sorted through this massive amount of correspondence and compiled more than four hundred of his favorite letters. In late 1964, the World Book Encyclopedia published these letters in a book titled, P.S. I Listened to Your Heartbeat: Letters to John Glenn.

After his recovery, Glenn continued to explore the political arena throughout the rest of the 1960s. He campaigned heavily in 1968 with Robert Kennedy during Kennedy's tragically aborted presidential campaign. In 1970, following Stephen Young's announcement he would not seek reelection to another term in the senate, Glenn once again entered the Ohio Democratic primary. His opponent in the primary was Cleveland businessman, Howard H. Metzenbaum. Metzenbaum entered the race with the backing of the Ohio Democratic Party and the major labor unions in the state. Better funded and more organized, Metzenbaum won a close race in the primary election, but lost the general election to Robert Taft, the Republican candidate.

Although defeated at the polls, Glenn continued to be active in the Ohio Democratic Party during the early 1970s. In 1970, he was appointed by Ohio Governor John Gilligan to be the chairman of the Citizens Task Force on Environmental Protection. The task force surveyed the environmental problems in Ohio and in its June 1971 final report made various recommendations to rectify those problems. The meetings held by the task force, along with its various reports, were major factors in the formation of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Glenn's next chance for a seat in the U.S. Senate came in October 1973 when William Saxbe resigned his place in the senate to become President Richard Nixon's attorney general. Glenn lobbied to be appointed to the vacancy left by Saxbe's resignation, but Governor Gilligan instead chose to award the appointment to Howard Metzenbaum. This move resulted in Glenn and Metzenbaum once again opposing each other in the 1974 Democratic primary election. Better organized than he was four years earlier, Glenn still faced a tough campaign as Metzenbaum again had the backing of the Ohio Democratic Party and the labor unions. Metzenbaum, however, made what turned out to be a major campaign blunder when during a speech in Toledo he accused Glenn of never holding a real job. Glenn at first chose to ignore the statement, but four days before the primary election, at a debate sponsored by the Cleveland City Club, Glenn delivered what came to be known as his "Gold Star Mother Speech." In the speech Glenn asked Metzenbaum to look any gold star mother (a mother whose son died in combat) in the eye and tell her that her son had not held a real job. The speech was devastatingly effective, made national news, and helped Glenn win the primary election by over one hundred thousand votes. Glenn went on to win the general election in November over the Republican candidate, Cleveland Mayor Ralph J. Perk.

Glenn became a freshman senator in the first Congress to meet after the resignation of President Richard Nixon. During this immediate post-Watergate era, the Democratic Party held the majority in the senate and the majority leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, became a friend and mentor to Glenn. During his first year in the senate, Glenn obtained assignments on the Government Operations Committee and the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. He served on the Energy Research and Water Resources Subcommittee of the latter, and following the reorganization of senate committees in 1977, chaired the Energy, Nuclear Proliferation, and Federal Services Subcommittee of the newly formed Governmental Affairs Committee. Through this subcommittee Glenn worked quietly to learn the ways of the senate and successfully introduced a number of bills on energy policy designed to alleviate some of the effects of the 1970s energy crisis. Glenn also used his position as chairman of the subcommittee to introduce legislation to help stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 proved to be the first of six major pieces of legislation on nuclear non-proliferation that Glenn introduced over the course of his twenty-four years in the senate. These bills remain a cornerstone of U.S. nuclear foreign policy.

In 1978, Glenn became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and obtained the chairmanship of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee. As a member of this committee, Glenn traveled widely throughout East Asia, making a number of fact-finding trips to Japan, Korea, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and to the People's Republic of China. From the information he gathered during meetings with foreign dignitaries, Glenn formulated, introduced, and helped pass the Taiwan Enabling Act of 1979. This legislation, still the foundation of U.S.-Taiwanese foreign relations, established the basis for continued relations between the United States and Taiwan in the wake of the recognition by the United States of the People's Republic of China.

Early in his first senate term Glenn was placed on the short list of candidates to become Jimmy Carter's vice-presidential running mate in the 1976 presidential elections. Glenn was given the honor, along with Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, of delivering the keynote address at that year's Democratic National Convention. Jordan led off by delivering a rousing speech to an enthusiastic crowd of convention delegates. For Glenn, however, her speech proved a tough act to follow. Glenn had put a tremendous amount of work into his speech in the weeks leading up to the convention, but the result turned out to be a major disappointment. His delivery and message failed to grab the attention of the delegates, who were at times distracted during the speech by the arrival on the convention floor of various leading members of the Democratic Party. Termed dull by news commentator Walter Cronkite, Glenn's speech at the convention left him marked as an uninspiring public speaker. It also may have been a contributing factor in Jimmy Carter's choice of Walter Mondale as his running mate.

Due to his military, aviation, and NASA background, Glenn became known as one of the experts within the U.S. Senate on policy issues relating to science and technology. His expertise at times lead to disagreements on policy issues with President Carter. For example, Glenn was a firm supporter of funding what he saw as the proven technology of the B-1 Bomber program. His support of the program was in direct conflict with President Carter's desire to instead fund the new stealth technology being developed in the B-2 Bomber program. At the time, Glenn had significant doubts about the feasibility of the stealth technology. The biggest dispute with President Carter, however, resulted from Glenn's position on the SALT II Treaty. Glenn had grave misgivings over the country's technological capabilities to monitor and verify Soviet compliance to some of the treaty's provisions. He outlined these doubts in a speech given in April 1979 at the launching ceremony for the nuclear missile submarine, U.S.S. Ohio. First Lady Rosalynn Carter also delivered some remarks at the ceremony, during which she chastised Glenn for his public stance against the treaty. Glenn remained firm, however, in his belief that the treaty was flawed without the means to verify Soviet compliance. In the end the senate never ratified the treaty, due primarily to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following year.

In 1980, Glenn won reelection to his second term in the senate by the largest margin ever recorded in an Ohio election. Propelled by his overwhelming landslide victory at the polls and disturbed over the policies of the newly elected administration of President Ronald Reagan, Glenn began exploring the possibilities of a bid for the White House in the 1984 election. Using funds left over from his 1980 reelection campaign, in 1982 Glenn started making appearances around the country on behalf of local Democratic candidates as a means of establishing a national base of support. Spurred on by favorable showings in voter surveys and by the withdrawal of Senator Ted Kennedy from the race, Glenn intensified his campaign travels in late 1982 and early 1983. On April 21, 1983, in a speech delivered at his hometown of New Concord, Ohio, Glenn formally announced his intention to seek the Democratic Party's nomination in the upcoming presidential election.

Glenn's presidential campaign started with initial success as early polls showed him ahead of the various other candidates, including his strongest rival, former vice president Walter Mondale. Glenn's front-runner status proved short-lived, however, as weak organization and disputes among his political advisors began to affect his ability to garner support within the Democratic Party on a national level. Glenn made the mistake of not personally campaigning enough in Iowa, which resulted in a disastrous fifth place finish in the Iowa caucuses held on February 20, 1984. Glenn tried hard to gain some momentum later that month in the New Hampshire primary, but tainted by his poor showing in Iowa, he placed behind both Gary Hart and Walter Mondale at the polls. Throughout the campaign Glenn planned on gaining support for his candidacy at the March Super Tuesday primary elections. He counted on his centralist positions on policy matters to appeal with voters in such southern states as Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. His poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, made a win in the Super Tuesday elections critical for the continued viability of his campaign. Unfortunately for Glenn, the results of the Super Tuesday elections turned out no better than those in Iowa and New Hampshire. In debt and mired behind both Hart and Mondale, Glenn made the difficult announcement of his withdrawal from the race on March 16, 1984.

Glenn returned to the senate after the elections with a renewed determination to make the federal government work for ordinary citizens. Following reelection to his third term in office in 1986, he became chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. He used his position on the committee to investigate a host of environmental and safety problems discovered at the nation's nuclear weapons facilities. Initially alerted to the problems by constituents concerned with the management of the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center outside of Cincinnati, Glenn soon discovered the extent of the problems reached far beyond one small site in Ohio. He held hearings on the matter through the Governmental Affairs Committee and requested a series of investigations by the General Accounting Office of Congress. It soon became apparent that one of the legacies of the Cold War was a vast array of mismanagement and neglect at the nuclear weapons installations run by the Department of Energy. The situation was particularly bad at the Hanford site in Washington State, at the Savannah River site in South Carolina, and at the Rocky Flats site outside of Denver. Glenn worked throughout the rest of his senate career to appropriate funding to clean up the nuclear waste piled at these facilities and to pass legislation designed to strengthen managerial oversight.

During the later part of the 1980s, Glenn also used his position as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee to pass legislation designed to stop waste, fraud and abuse in governmental spending. He had been an early sponsor and prime mover behind the Inspector Generals Act of 1978 that placed independent inspector generals in various federal departments. Glenn now worked to expand the office of inspector general into all federal departments and agencies. By his retirement from the senate in 1998 Glenn was successful in placing such offices in sixty different entities of the federal government. In addition, Glenn ushered through Congress the Chief Financial Officer Act of 1990. This legislation placed a chief financial officer in twenty-three government departments and agencies and required yearly audited financial statements of major federal agencies.

In 1985, Glenn resigned his membership in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to take a place on the Senate Armed Services Committee. From 1987 through 1994 he chaired the Manpower and Personnel Subcommittee and at various time held a seat on subcommittees with oversight on military readiness and strategic forces. Through these assignments Glenn became involved in a wide variety of defense related policy matters and worked diligently to increase Department of Defense contracts with businesses in Ohio. He was a leader in the senate on opposition to the deployment of both the Strategic Defense Initiative and the MX missile and cosponsored legislation to halt production of the B-2 Bomber. His subcommittee held hearings on the role of women in the armed forces and on the treatment of homosexuals in the military. In 1991, following the end of the Persian Gulf War, he led a congressional task force to Kuwait. This trip resulted in legislation providing a generous package of benefits to veterans of this conflict.

During his third term in office, Glenn became a founding member and co-chairman of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force. This non-partisan coalition, comprised of senators representing states bordering the Great Lakes, studied ways to improve both the economy and the environment of the region. Through this group, Glenn first identified and then investigated the negative impact on the lakes' ecosystem caused by the introduction of such non-native species as the zebra mussel. In 1990 and again in 1996 he sponsored and successfully passed major legislation designed to halt the spread of non-indigenous nuisance species. Glenn remained co-chair of the task force until his retirement in 1998.

Starting in 1989, Glenn became embroiled in what the media dubbed the "Keating Five Scandal." Charles Keating was a financier and owner of the California based Lincoln Savings and Loan. Lincoln Savings and Loan, like many other savings and loan companies during the late 1980s, became burdened with bad debt as a result of questionable investment practices stemming from the deregulation of the industry earlier in the decade. Keating was a former constituent and campaign contributor of Glenn. In 1987, he asked Glenn to meet with officials of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to inquire about delays in the board's audit of Lincoln Savings and Loan. Glenn, along with four other senators, attended two meetings with board officials that year. During the second of these meetings Glenn learned that the audit might lead to criminal charges being brought against company executives. At that point Glenn left the meeting and closed out any further involvement with the matter. Two years later, after Lincoln Savings and Loan became the largest in a series of bankruptcies within the savings and loan industry, press reports pointed to the 1987 meetings as an example of undue, and possibly corrupt, influence by industry officials with members of Congress. The Ohio Republican Party and Common Cause called for an investigation of Glenn's dealings with Keating. In 1990, the Senate Ethics Committee began an investigation into the matter led by Robert Bennett, an independent outside counsel. Later that year, the committee held a series of hearings on the role played by Glenn and the other members of the "Keating Five" - Senators John McCain and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Senator Alan Cranston of California, and Senator Don Riegle of Michigan. In February 1991, after what Glenn has described as the low point of his life, the Ethics Committee issued its final report, which stated Glenn had used poor judgment in the affair, but exonerated him of any wrong doing.

The "Keating Five" affair, along with the lingering debt from his presidential campaign, became issues in 1992 when Glenn sought reelection to his fourth term in the senate. His Republican opponent, Ohio lieutenant governor Mike DeWine, used these issues in an attempt to smear Glenn's reputation in the eyes of voters. After what the media described as the dirtiest campaign in the country that year, Glenn beat DeWine at the polls and became the first person from Ohio ever to be elected to four terms in the U.S. Senate.

During his fourth term in the senate, Glenn resumed his steady work on policy issues in which he held a special interest. He continued to oversee the implementation of reforms in the management of the nation's nuclear weapons facilities by the Department of Energy. He furthered his efforts to establish the offices of inspector general and chief financial officer in federal agencies as a means to curtail waste, fraud, and abuse in federal spending. Through his position as a member of both the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he strengthened federal legislation designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons with the passage of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1994. He advocated the need for the United States to strongly support the nuclear non-proliferation activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He became the senate champion for the appropriation of federal funding for the International Space Station and remained a staunch proponent for larger federal support to fund basic research into science and technology. In 1995, after the Republican Party gained the majority in both houses of Congress, Glenn mediated compromise legislation on some of the more sweeping regulatory reform measures called for by the Republican Party's "Contract with America."

During his last term in the senate, however, Glenn will probably be best known as the minority leader during the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's hearings on campaign finance reform. When the Republican Party gained control of the U.S. Senate following the 1994 elections, Glenn turned over his position as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee to Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Two years later, after the most costly presidential election in history, leaders within the Republican Party decided to look into campaign financing. The Governmental Affairs Committee, through its Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, was chosen as the logical vehicle for the investigation. Glenn initially approached what became known as the "Thompson-Glenn Hearings" with enthusiasm. He felt the hearings might lead to some significant and much needed reforms in the manner in which political campaigns were funded. By late February 1997, however, it became apparent that the hearings were going to focus mainly on the activities of the Democratic Party, and specifically on the White House, rather than focus on the inherent problems in the current system of campaign funding. Glenn attempted to use his position to shift the committee's focus onto the larger issues, but for the most part was unsuccessful. The hearings ended later that year without making any significant impact towards campaign finance reform.

On February 20, 1997, the thirty-fifth anniversary of his historic space flight aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft, Glenn announced during a speech given in New Concord that he would not seek a fifth term in the senate. He planned to retire at the end of his current term in December 1998. At the time of his announcement he had already made some inquiries with NASA into the possibility of returning to space to study the effects of space flight on the aging process. These plans came to fruition the following year with his much heralded participation as a member of the crew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-95.

Glenn's return to space in many ways was an appropriate finale to his career in politics, a career that started thirty-four years earlier when he resigned from NASA's Mercury program to enter his first political campaign. During the intervening years Glenn ran two unsuccessful and four successful senate election campaigns and was at one time the front-runner for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. After twenty-four years in the U.S. Senate, he left the United States a safer nation, both internationally through his nuclear non-proliferation legislation and environmentally through his reforms in the management of nuclear weapons sites. By his legislation mandating federal inspector generals and chief financial officers he actively sought to make the federal government function more efficiently and better serve the needs of its citizens. He left a solid progressive voting record in such policy areas as aging, education, civil rights, veterans' affairs, and women's issues and was instrumental in opening Congress to the same employment laws governing the nation as a whole. John Glenn left the senate with a reputation for quiet hard work. His years in the United States Senate, just like his years in the United States Marine Corps and with NASA, epitomized the best standards to be found in a life dedicated to public service.