John Glenn's death signals the end of the American hero

Glenn was the embodiment of heartland values, of all that America sees as best in itself. He was a decent and patriotic, hardworking, sensible and down to earth. Today, plenty of eminent midwesterners still tick all these boxes. But none of them comes close to national hero status

Rupert Cornwell
Saturday 10 December 2016 12:13
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Glenn loads into the Friendship 7 capsule on 20 February 1962
Glenn loads into the Friendship 7 capsule on 20 February 1962

John Glenn died last week, and one theme in the obituaries was unvarying. Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, was the last true American national hero. And one wonders: will there ever be another?

The question is particularly apt in the incipient age of Trump, when the country is more divided than ever. In more straightforward times, Presidents used to be national heroes. But certainly not the one shortly to take office, nor even the one about to step down, even though Barack Obama’s approval ratings climb by the day. A class act is about to vanish from the stage, and whatever Trump’s virtues the last thing you can call him is a class act. Obama will be missed.

Glenn though was exactly that. The adulation that engulfed him after his feat back in February 1962 is hard to imagine today. The US was nervous. The Cold War was at its height, the Soviet Union was way ahead in the space race: what had happened to America’s vaunted technology and can-do spirit? Space travel moreover was risky then. Glenn’s three-hour flight, even though it only replicated a feat the Russians had accomplished a year earlier in the person of Yuri Gagarin, elicited a vast collective sigh of pride and relief.

The reward was the status of an instant hero, a hero judged so important to the national interest that President John Kennedy prevented Glenn from undertaking another mission, for fear of disaster overtaking this symbol of national prowess. But the astronaut never let glory turn his head – which in those times only made him more of a hero.

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John Glenn was apple pie made flesh. He came from Ohio, the midwestern state that is a perfect cross section of America. He was the embodiment of heartland values, of all that the country sees as best in itself. He was a decent and patriotic, hardworking, sensible and down to earth. Today, plenty of eminent midwesterners still tick all these boxes. But none of them comes close to national hero status.

Ours is a far less simple age. In 1962 Glenn was getting one back for America against a single, easily identifiable, military and ideological foe – its rival for global supremacy. Heroes need enemies to overcome, and in the Kremlin of the Cold War, the US had one. Today, for all of Vladimir Putin’s swagger, Russia is a shadow of the old Soviet Union. China is as much economic partner as geopolitical adversary. And Isis? Please.

Ours is also a far crueller age. Well before the brutal 2016 election campaign, the dangers of an atomised media and fake news, of internet trolls and character assassination on social media were plain to see. Today, even an upstanding son of the midwest like Glenn would probably have received such treatment.

So who is national hero material in 2016? Go by the polls and the answer would seem to lie within the most trusted institution in the country, the military, which is streets ahead of the Presidency and the judiciary – let alone the media and Congress – in national esteem. From George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower to Trump’s pick as Secretary of Defence, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, America has loved its generals – which is surely one reason the President-elect is stuffing his administration with them.

But generals need wars to become heroes. This, believe it or not, is still an age of peace. There’s talk of a new Cold War, but it’s not the sort of threat that has schoolchildren being taught to hide under their desks in the event of nuclear attack. Nor is it going to be a political leader. The approval rating of Congress is down there with colonoscopies and communism. As for Trump, 2.7m more Americans voted last month for his opponent than for him.

Bear in mind also Glenn’s own career. The Kennedys, no less, urged him to go into politics, and he spent 24 years in the Senate impressing all and sundry with his hard work and knowledge of the issues, particularly foreign affairs and nuclear proliferation. Yet politics was always somehow an afterthought, a road opened by what happened in 1962. For all his quiet virtues, Glenn was dull as dishwater on the campaign trail. When he ran for President in 1984, everyone wanted his autograph. Alas, no-one wanted to give him their vote.

Nowhere is the decline of American heroes more measurable than in the hero’s traditional accolade, the ticker-tape parade in downtown New York. Glenn had his first in 1962, in the decades when the institution was in its heyday, and was awarded a rare second in 1998 as a member of the crew of the shuttle Discovery and the oldest man to go into space (to further research on aging, the incorrigible space addict maintained).

Since then what few parades have taken place have honoured only championship-winning home town sports teams – with the lone exception of the US women who won the 2015 FIFA soccer world cup. If America does crown a genuinely national hero, he or she will surely be a sports star. But even then the field is limited. National heroes by definition must overcome foreigners, preferably against the odds. That surely rules out America-only sports like gridiron football or baseball. And it’s not just about being a world beater. Peacetime heroes must be universally recognised as nice guys as well.

That’s why – and not because they’re black – Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan never quite made it. They might have been the most successful American athletes of the last half century. But although they were hugely admired, they were never truly loved. An American Usain Bolt might do the trick, or perhaps an American Roger Federer. But nothing’s in sight right now. Unless, of course, Donald Trump astounds us all.

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