Glenn's Reward

Copyright 1998 Wall Street Journal
October 27, 1998

The White House says President Clinton will travel to Cape Canaveral this week to bask in the reflected glory of John Glenn's second space flight. And why not? It will be a classic Clinton moment.

A blatant political payoff is being spun into a media event conjuring nostalgia for the lost glory of Camelot. Time magazine has already done its cover story hailing the launch as a "timely reminder that we can still have heroes." Mr. Clinton will of course use the event to invoke JFK on the spirit of American daring. Even Walter Cronkite is emerging from retirement to celebrate his fellow AARP member, the 77-year-old senator.

Amid this hype, it's no doubt rude to point out the truth. But here goes: What's really going on here is one of the most cynical political transactions of the Clinton years.

Last year Mr. Glenn used his influence as the ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee to turn the Senate's campaign-finance probe into a partisan circus. He thus contributed to a cover-up of misdeeds from the 1996 campaign that even now go unpunished. Then, in January, Mr. Glenn got permission from NASA for the joyride of his life, a chance to transcend his political career with a reprise of glories past.

We are supposed to believe this is just a coincidence, and any other administration might deserve the benefit of the doubt. It is also true that the precedent for this senatorial privilege was set by Jake Garn in 1985. But this is the same White House that corrupted the immigration service in 1996, prosecuted Billy Dale of the Travel Office for revenge, and planted John Huang at the Commerce Department. Normal standards of political decorum don't apply.

No one denies that Mr. Glenn was panting for a space-shuttle trip even as he was flacking for the White House on campaign finance. As long as two years ago, he visited NASA chief Dan Goldin with his request. He also visited Mr. Clinton, who recalled this spring that Mr. Glenn told him he was retiring from the Senate but then asked, "Oh, by the way, can you get me into space?"

At about this same time serious people were saying that the campaign-finance hearings were Mr. Glenn's chance to leave the Senate on a note of honor. His reputation had taken a hit since his turn with the Senate's Keating Five, who intimidated federal regulators on behalf of a campaign contributor.

But instead Mr. Glenn spurned every attempt by Republican Fred Thompson to make the campaign-finance hearings a bipartisan search for the truth. Mr. Thompson told us Mr. Glenn had been one of his boyhood heroes, so he was stunned when the senator gave him only the back of his hand.

As Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post put it last October: "Men for whom I have had great respect -- a John Glenn, a Carl Levin -- who have contributed so handsomely to our public life seem willing to transform themselves night after night on television into unthinking, reflexive justifiers of just about any tawdry practice or self-evident untruth that their party leaders have been found out in."

NASA now says the Glenn flight was Mr. Goldin's call and, as they say at this White House, this may even be "legally accurate." But it's hard to believe he didn't know what Mr. Clinton wanted. Would he really be willing to risk his agency's future on such a celebrity flight, should something go wrong, without at least tacit White House approval?

NASA says the timing of this shuttle launch was set in July 1997, before Mr. Glenn was even on the crew. But Mr. Clinton is still finding time to appear at this supposedly non-political event five days before a national election. This couldn't possibly have anything to do with the seniors who tend to make up a larger share of the electorate in non-presidential election years.

NASA's official justification for the Glenn trip is to test the effects of aging in space. But there were better candidates for that mission -- such as astronaut Story Musgrave, who flew on the shuttle at age 61 but was told at age 67 he was too old for space flight. NASA has more detailed medical and space-flight records on Mr. Musgrave.

Last week the New York Times reported that Mr. Glenn isn't even able to do one part of a major sleep experiment NASA plans to perform. That data will now go uncollected.

"I'll tell you what it's not: It's not part of any coherent medical study," Alcestis Oberg, a space program analyst, told Gannett News Service in January. "If that were true, NASA would send its own astronauts, wouldn't they?"

We'll tell you what it is: Another priceless moment of Clinton political cynicism.

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