By John F. Di Leo -
Reflections on the death of Senator John Glenn
On December 8, 2016, a left-wing politician, long-since retired, died of old age.
Politicians die all the time, so it shouldn’t really be a big deal. America is a political nation, with hundreds of thousands of elective offices from city council and park board to governors and presidents, so politicians, both currently serving and retired (either intentionally or forcibly) die every day.
But this was no ordinary politician. Former U.S. Senator John Herschel Glenn died, at the ripe old age of 95, and was immediately lauded by all sides, for his military service in WWII and Korea, his courage in accepting the role of a Mercury program astronaut, and his 24 years in the United States Senate, representing the state of Ohio.
The fact that he represented Ohio, of all places, might be the most telling aspect of this story.
A Political Life
John Glenn served admirably in two wars, then joined the space program. He was the first human to orbit the earth, at the age of forty, winning global attention and praise for being the quintessential American hero: military man, test pilot, astronaut. He was one of the groundbreaking men who brought us into the Space Age.
But then, he entered politics, almost immediately. He lost a bid for the US Senate in 1964, then another in 1970, but won the prize in 1974 and remained, for four long terms. He was a fixture of the U.S. Senate from until 1998. Some would argue that this is an example of the need for term limits; Republicans and Democrats alike tend to go native when they stay in Washington too long. But there is something about this story that’s worth noting.
John Glenn was a left-wing politician. Not a conservative Democrat, or a moderate, as one would naturally expect from a Marine pilot and war hero, but a confirmed liberal.
The American Conservative Union has one of the more respectable ranking methodologies in Washington, and vets incumbents carefully, based on a cross section of social, foreign policy, and economic issues. An ACU ranking between forty and seventy percent would generally be considered a moderate in either party; the very top and very bottom are clearly more dependable conservatives or liberals. John Glenn’s lifetime ACU rating was 12% when he left office. And his last two years? Zero, in both 1997 and 1998. You really have to work at it to get a zero ranking with the ACU.
This is not to diminish Senator Glenn’s honorable record as a valiant pilot in wartime, or as a courageous test pilot, or as a daring Mercury pioneer.
But it is just as true that his life story must also acknowledge his 24 years in the US Senate as a hyperpartisan leftist. The Gentleman from Ohio spent 24 years voting for bigger government, higher taxes, higher government spending. He spent 24 years voting away America’s Constitutional right to the limited government intended for us by our Founding Fathers. He spent 24 years voting for the regulatory burdens that have driven tens of millions of jobs overseas. That’s his record too.
So to the extent that the November 2016 election should be thought of as a call for the overthrow of the job-destroying omni-state of the American Left, we should keep in mind, this recent vote was against John Glenn and his side of the aisle as well.
The Importance of Ohio
Ohio is a birthplace of presidents. Only Virginia challenges Ohio for production of the most presidents, and that’s a tenuous claim indeed, since Virginia’s record dates to when we only had thirteen states to choose from.
In presidential politics, we think of Ohio as the king of the battlegrounds, the battleground state to rule all battlegrounds. No Republican, for example, has ever won the office without Ohio; pollsters and political consultants who can barely remember the capital cities of Montana or Utah will know the demographic breakdowns of every city and county in Ohio. That state is the bread-and-butter of the political world.
As such, one would expect Ohio to be represented by moderates, people who can walk the line between the extremes rather well – and sometimes it’s true. Ohio’s current governor, for example – John “Son-of-a-Mailman” Kasich – cannot easily be identified on a political spectrum, being fiscally conservative in some ways, but not in others, conservative on some social issues, liberal on others. The same could be said of other long-lasting Ohio politicians, like George Voinovich and Mike DeWine.
But John Glenn lasted 24 years in that same state, despite having a voting record that was incredibly left-wing. He didn’t even start out moderate or conservative, and then turn left gradually, as so many do; he started out as an extremist and stayed there. In 1975, his first year in the US Senate, John Glenn had a 12% ACU rating, the rating he’d have as his cumulative lifetime average when he retired, four full terms later.
John Glenn survived the Democrat bloodbath of 1980, when fellow leftists George McGovern, Frank Church, Gaylord Nelson, and so many others, including his “next-door neighbor” Birch Bayh of Indiana, lost their US Senate seats. Why? Was John Glenn somehow so talented at retail politics that he could withstand an electoral tsunami on charm alone? Hardly.
The Power of Celebrity
For any other politician – rich or poor, professional-class or laborer-class, a campaign is run on issues. Maybe they’re the major issues you’d expect; maybe they’re unusual fringe issues that a candidate makes his own. As public feelings change about those issues, the candidate’s success will ebb and flow as well. Being a conservative was practically fatal in 2006 and 2008, being a liberal was practically fatal in 1980 and 1994.
John Glenn wasn’t up for reelection in 1994, but judging from voting records, and from how his own state voted in other races that year, he should have gone down in 1980. Why did he survive while so many others failed? The answer is obvious: The voters never thought of him as a leftist.
John Glenn was elected to the US Senate as a patriot, a war hero, a cultural icon. At the time of his first election, that was a fair judgment; he had indeed had the courage few would have had: to climb into a capsule and be blasted off into outer space. This is indeed worthy of attention and respect.
But because that’s how he was elected, his opponents over the years could never get the electorate to turn their gaze away from his place in the stars and focus on his voting record. Year after year, the ACU identified him as one of the most left-wing US Senators, identifying his votes for utter economic and societal destruction, and opponents simply couldn’t get traction.
The American psyche is raised – rightly, in fact! – to have great respect for the courageous, for the military heroes, for the entrepreneurs, adventurers and inventors. It does make sense that we should have a default starting point of respect for such a man.
But this positive is transformed into a negative if such default respect blinds us to the voting record of a legislator. Our desire for heroes in a non-heroic age is a crippling vulnerability, because all the opposition party has to do is find a hero, talk him into running for office, and then let the heroism keep him in office forever, reelection after reelection, immune from the slings and arrows of a political opponent. No matter the political tides, if you won because you were a star, then you’re set for life as long as you don’t lose that stardom. And how can you?
The Rahm Emanuel Strategy
In January of 2005, Nancy Pelosi picked Rahm Emanuel to run the House effort for the 2006 elections. He put in place a national effort that he’d been working on for some time – an effort to find Democratic candidates who would vote solidly liberal but look moderate, or even appear conservative, because of identification with some major conservative position or demographic. And his most success with this tactic was found when he recruited people with military backgrounds.
The state of Illinois saw an example of this: the Democrats recruited a disabled war veteran named Tammy Duckworth to run for the House of Representatives. She didn’t win the first time, but they stuck with her, and she won a House seat, which they turned into a Senate seat in 2016. She’s no conservative, and she’s no moderate either (her lifetime ACU rating is an astonishing 6.67%)… but she won a swing suburban House district and then a statewide seat in Illinois. Now she’s likely there for the rest of her life.
All Tammy Duckworth has to do is stand up, and we see her distinctive military-issue legs, and any decent patriot’s heart melts. It should melt, by the way; such default respect for valiant military service is a good and necessary part of the American soul. But when it blinds the voter to the fact that, in her last year in the House before this election, she had a lousy 4% ACU rating, the voter simply isn’t evaluating the issues correctly.
All over the country, we see candidates winning elections despite massive disconnects from the voters’ best interest. Issues only matter if you vote based on those issues; if you can be convinced that you should vote for “the war hero,” “the celebrity comic,” “the space pioneer,” “the housewife,” “the kid from the neighborhood who made good”… then you never have to worry about issues again. Just keep reminding the voters that Tammy Duckworth lost her legs in the war, that John Glenn orbited the earth, that Al Franken made you laugh on TV, that little Billy made it from nothing to the White House but never went anywhere without his sax.
The culture of celebrity may doom America, even as many other seemingly-worse problems could not. If voters don’t understand the dangers of climate hysteria, of Islamic jihad, of crippling tax policy, a smart candidate can educate them. A think tank can fund public service messages. The spokesmen of a movement can explain over time, so that the tide turns.
But if the public isn’t wrong on an issue, it just lets celebrity outrank it, what on earth is there to do?
We need to raise our children, not only to appreciate the Founding Fathers’ vision, not only to understand the big picture, but also to understand that what matters in a politician, most of all, is what he does in the office, not what he did ten, or twenty, or thirty years before.
This isn’t just about the “low information voter,” by the way. It’s about solid, principled conservatives and military veterans too, who would hold the same rotten voting record against anyone else, but can’t bring themselves to hold it against a candidate who shares their branch of service, or who was injured in battle.
If we don’t educate our children on what matters in an election and what doesn’t, we will be doomed to be misrepresented by celebrities who vote left but get the public to disregard it completely in the voting booth.
You think “emanations and penumbra” don’t belong in the Constitution? Try finding “the right to be governed by celebrities” in there. It’s nowhere in the Constitution, but like so much else that isn’t, half the country’s voters think it is.
Copyright 2016 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker, trade compliance lecturer, actor and writer. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
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