As the World Turns… Part Two

Yes, as I said yesterday in Part One, words do matter… and I tossed these out to show which ones dominated the media circus at the end of 2016.

World order. Disruption. Transition. Cyber-Intrusion. Destabilization Post-truth. Twitter.

I should have substituted transitions for the word passages in Part One, because the lives and accomplishments I celebrated – Diane Rehm, the NPR talk show host, and Chuck Feeney, the founder of Atlantic Philanthropies – are not leaving us. They are both very much alive but transitioning to new phases in their lives.

Today’s celebrants are also transitioning, but the death of John Glenn and the end of the Obama presidency are real passages.  It has always been my intention to maintain the long view and remain positive at a time when the news cycle is dominated by sensational sound bites, rising fears, and uncivil debate. I hope you agree that we need to find a way through the noise to a positive outcome.

Of the four transition/passages I picked to write about, only John Glenn’s was a true ending, and of all the celebrity obituaries in 2016, John Glenn’s was more personal and significant to me than most. As a music fan I mourned the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, and Glen Frey, and though I disagreed with most of his decisions I recognized that Antonin Scalia was a major figure in the judicial pantheon. The world was diminished by the death of Elie Wiesel, who kept us from forgetting the Holocaust and Muhammed Ali for reminding us that there is such a thing as courage outside the ring as well as in. There were many more final passages last year, but John Glenn’s signaled the end of an era.

He was a pioneer, a true American hero, and a gentleman. I was first aware of Colonel Glenn in 1959, the year I earned my Naval Aviator wings and two years after he set a transcontinental speed record in “our” airplane, the F8U Crusader. It was my first fleet assignment to a Marine squadron and I was privileged to fly the hottest fighter in the fleet, the same model F8 that Major Glenn had flown on his record setting cross-country flight. By then he had become one of the seven astronauts chosen for the Mercury space program, and the only Marine of the seven. We Marines regarded him as our man in the program and took immense pride in his accomplishments.

In February of 1962, my squadron mates and I crowded around a small black and white television set in the Ready Room of VMF-312 to watch Colonel Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth. It was a proud moment for us, but a larger moment for America.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox slugger, was John Glenn’s wingman in Korea. It’s hard to imagine Ted Williams as subordinate to anyone, but John Glenn was one of a kind and commanded the respect of everyone who knew him – even the greatest hitter in baseball history.

Colonel, then Senator, Glenn was a legend, a friend of Presidents, and eventually a US Senator from Ohio. After four terms in the Senate, the 77-year-old retired from politics in 1998 and returned to space aboard the Shuttle Discovery where he provided valuable information to NASA about the effects of space on the older body.

I admire John Glenn for his pioneering aviation and space accomplishments and his service in the Senate, but it’s his essential goodness that I admire most. He was the most American of Americans. Born and raised in a small Ohio town, he served his country in two wars and flew twice as an astronaut. He married his high school sweetheart, Annie, a woman who had a pronounced lifelong stutter and their marriage endured for 73 years. He died exactly one month ago today at the age of 95. John Glenn will be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6, 2017. For those of us who came of age in the middle of the 20th Century, the end of John Glenn’s life marked the end of the most remarkable era in modern American history.

Transition, as I’ve noted, is one of those words that makes banner headlines today. The papers and pundits cross their fingers as they discuss “a smooth transition of power” in America’s political life, and government employees cross theirs hoping that the transition to civilian life will also be smooth. But, the last transition and perhaps most memorable transition to highlight is the end of the Obama White House – and the tenures of the Obama and Biden families as its First Families.

This is not a political statement but a purely human one. The Obama and Biden families have modeled the high standards Americans have always said they wanted in their  elected officials, and whether you agree or disagree with their politics their collective behavior sets a high bar for their political heirs worthy of every American’s admiration.

As President Mr. Obama’s legacy is still in question, but there is no question that the two families represent the best of American values – integrity, loyalty, intelligence and love. They love each other. They love their children. And, they love America.

Critics may disagree strongly with the impact of their political decisions, but no Presidential families, in my lifetime, have led such exemplary public lives. There was never been a hint of scandal in either family, and their collective personas mirror mutual admiration and affection. Both families have tried to live as normally as possible. The President made a point of having dinner with Michelle and his daughters every night  before returning to work in the Oval, and Jill Biden continued her career as a community college English teacher during Joe’s years as Vice-President. All four have demonstrated the kind of rectitude, goodness, dignity and, yes, “family values” that Americans say they admire and want in their leaders.

Today, in a special ceremony, President Obama awarded Vice-President Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom (with special distinction) an honor given to only three other people – Pope John Paul II, former President Ronald Reagan, and Colin Powell.

We will miss both of these families and the examples they set. The nation will miss them too – even if they strongly disagreed with their politics. God speed, as we used to say to John Glenn, you deserve the best of everything. I know your work is not complete and I will be watching as you and your families transition to the next phase of your lives. Thank you.


  1. Good words, Jack. It’s enough to make one bawl (losing the Obamas).
    I’m writing this from Walla Walla where the daytime temp has been holding steady for three days at 6 degrees. Tucson will feel good if we can manage to get there.
    Semper f.

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