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Godspeed, John Glenn. God Help Us, America.
The passing of a hero reminds us of a time when America’s leaders and aspirations inspired us.
The hamster was about 4 inches long and about 2 and a half inches wide at his haunches. He was also light brown — but that was beside the point. I was measuring him while he wriggled in my hand to see if he would fit in the largest nose cone that the Estes model rocket company made.
With my friend John, I had established the American Astronomical Association, which I would have liked to think was one of the few space programs actually run entirely by fourth-graders. But I would have been wrong. When I was a little boy, everyone was obsessed with space and astronauts and, yes, science. Our plan — to launch that hamster high into the sky atop a solid-fuel model rocket and bring him safely home — was pretty much standard fare for the kids of the day.
My room was filled with models of spacecraft that I spent my free time building. I had a three-drawer file cabinet filled with every piece of material that NASA would send the public: pictures of astronauts, details of the lunar lander, descriptions of space planes and Mars shots that were never to be. I knew the name, age, and birthplace of every astronaut and meticulously followed the details of each new class of astronauts as they were accepted into the program.
In school, a TV was rolled into the room on a tall gray cart so we could watch each launch of the Mercury program. By the time the Gemini program began, such launches were deemed less worthy of classroom breaks — so I would pretend to be sick and watch from home. I built spaceships out of refrigerator boxes with toggle switches and lights and batteries my father brought home from his lab at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Inside the boxes, I replicated the control panel of the Gemini capsules in magic marker on the cardboard — because I knew it by heart.
Many of the biggest developments of my childhood were breakthroughs in the space program — new endurance records, the first docking in space, early space walks, the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo 8 Christmas broadcast as they circled the moon. When we finally landed on the moon in July 1969, I was at summer camp, and we sat on the floor watching on a small black-and-white television. Even at camp, there was a box of news clippings about the moon program in a shoebox under my bed.
In a few years, the span of a childhood, we had gone from being earthbound to walking on the moon. The men and women of the space program were, in many respects, the reason I wanted to grow up … because they lived the ideal of reaching for the stars and made us believe it was possible.
I had no reason to believe the world would not always be that way, no reason to assume that presidents and our other leaders would not always set lofty goals for us as a society and that scientists and space explorers and others with great minds and vision and hearts would not always be our heroes.
This week, John Glenn died at age 95. His obituaries said he was an astronaut — twice: once in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth and once again in 1998, at age 77, as the oldest person ever to go into space. He was also a hero as a fighter pilot and as a senator. But he was much more than just the remarkable things he did. He was an inspiration. He was an example. In The Right Stuff, he is mocked for his all-American, squeaky-clean attitude. But that was who he was. He lived it.
When I heard the news of Glenn’s death, I was sitting at my desk at Columbia University. And I am not ashamed to say a tear rolled down my cheek. I stared out into the night sky over Upper Manhattan and saw the first stars of evening. And then I realized I was not just crying for the loss of a hero or for the lost hopes and dreams of my long-ago childhood. I was crying for what has become of America, our ideals, our aspirations, and our leaders.
At roughly the same time I was contemplating John Glenn’s legacy, the news broke that America’s president-elect was going to continue as executive producer of The Celebrity Apprentice while he was president. (Later, one of his advisors would explain that he would do this in his “spare time.”) He had moments earlier appointed a fast-food mogul as his labor secretary nominee — a man who doesn’t believe in the minimum wage, a man who built his company on the back of the exploitation of the underpaid and on the most sexist ad campaigns in his industry’s history, a man with a record of having been accused of spousal abuse. (As one observer noted on Twitter, the president-elect now has as many accused women-abusers in his cabinet as he has women in it.) During the same day, the news was filled with reports of Trump’s personal attacks on a steelworker who had the temerity to note when the president-elect was lying because, in fact, the president-elect had been lying.
In a few short weeks, Donald Trump has done more to debase the presidency of the United States than anyone since Richard Nixon — and, candidly, I am certain Nixon would have been shocked and disgusted by Trump. He has embraced and capitalized on the espionage efforts of a rival government … and then defended that government. He has reversed foundational U.S. foreign policy while at the same time eschewing regular intelligence briefings. He has offered encouragement not just to Vladimir Putin but to despots from the Philippines to Syria to Central Asia. He has populated his cabinet-to-be with nominees who, for the most part, have very little or no civilian government experience. Many, in fact, have been actively opposed to the role their agencies were created to play — a labor secretary opposed to the minimum wage, an Environmental Protection Agency head who does not believe in climate change and was against environmental regulation, an education secretary who does not believe in public education, an attorney general with a track record of trying to constrain rather than protect civil rights.
He has made appointments that are offensive (an ethno-nationalist chief strategist in the White House), ridiculous (a wrestling executive to the Small Business Administration), and contrary to campaign promises (he attacked Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs but now appears to be stocking his government with plutocrats — three of whom hail from that very bank).
Already, he has repeatedly denigrated the office to which he was elected: not just by saying it was not going to be his only job, but through his disregard for the ethical standards observed by his predecessors, efforts to intimidate the press, demeaning Twitter spats with actors and private citizens, being unprepared for calls with foreign leaders, and continuing to embrace the ugliest parts of his base — the haters and the misogynists.
Others in his party, supposed Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, have chosen to look the other way — regarding conflicts of interest, regarding the odious Russia connection, regarding policy recklessness, and regarding racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny. They simply saw an opportunity to work their agenda — all of which is focused on dismantling Obama-era achievements rather than actually doing anything new or great or inspiring or transformational for the lives of the American people.
How remote is the world of Donald Trump, part-time president, part-time producer of Celebrity Apprentice, from John F. Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon within a decade? How deviant is the character of this government from the one that embraced science and math and engineering and heroism and a vision to send human beings where none had gone before and in so doing also make the world more peaceful by demonstrating America’s true strengths?
We are actually at almost a polar opposite moment. Trump is the un-Kennedy. Kennedy was also rich, to be sure. And Kennedy also surrounded himself with his family. But Kennedy saw the presidency with the eyes of the Greatest Generation, with reverence and respect. Kennedy believed in big dreams — that our best years were ahead of us — and sought to make those dreams reality. Kennedy saw the answer as an embrace of science and technology, knowledge and curiosity. Trump has created an anti-government, a government in which the stated objective of many appointed to top positions is purely negative: to undo Barack Obama’s legacy, to undo the mission of the agency, even to end the agency entirely. Trump has treated the presidency as though it were another acquisition, a family possession and not even the most important one. He has displayed reckless disregard for the trust his supporters have placed in him and for the responsibilities the Constitution will soon impose upon him.
Perhaps worst of all, he has undertaken to shape his presidency-to-come upon a foundation of lies. His own team has said he is not to be taken “literally.” He has embraced “fake news” with the avidity of a Stalinist propaganda officer. He has shown he has no respect for knowledge. And, yes, he lies — frequently.
The least experienced president-elect in history spends more time reading and writing tweets than briefing papers. If one group has lost in his appointment process so far, it is the Washington policy community. Few may shed any tears, and, sure, there are plenty of bad apples in the group. But Trump’s cabinet of plutocrats, cronies, and generals contains none who have actually come up through the system, none who have experience running agencies, none who have spent time grappling with the intellectual and bureaucratic issues essential to policymaking and planning.
In short, this is the most anti-intellectual president-elect in American history. He has ridden a wave of social media-derived rumors, conspiracy theories, and lies to high office and seems to have loyalty only to himself, his family, and to a complete disregard for facts. He offers slogans that even he does not believe rather than vision. It is a scam, a ratings ploy, a chance to serve himself.
John Glenn served his country. He and Kennedy and those of that era sought to challenge us and themselves to always be better, do better, and learn more. They celebrated intellectual achievement as the foundation for future growth. Now, a half-century later, our leaders celebrate only wealth and celebrity, placing self-interest and the interests of the few far ahead those of the American people, our children, and our children’s children.
We once were inspired. Now we must despair. Godspeed, John Glenn. God help us, America.
Photo credit: TONY RANZE/AFP/Getty Images