Bill Minor, Thursday, Nov. 19, 1998
JACKSON--When 77-year-old John Glenn rocketed into outer space two weeks ago, he gave a lift to the entire nation, and with him soared the spirits of us septuagenarians.
What, of course, makes the Glenn voyage extra special is that he had been the first American to orbit the globe 36 years before. Remarkable, isn't it, that one man can twice become a national hero, and be such a nice guy along with it.
Not incidentally, this time when he went into space he was a member of the United States Senate.
Despite the snickering and the Jay Leno jokes that accompanied sending a geriatric-type into outer space, all Americans were proud and happy when Glenn held his own aboard the space vehicle and then came back to earth in good shape. Of course, there was criticism about the value of sending an older person into space for testing, but much medical and scientific information has been gleaned from space flights over the past three decades, and it is reasonable that Glenn's voyage may well open new insights into the aging process.
Some of us have not forgotten that John Glenn in the 1980s had offered his services to the nation as its president, but unfortunately he couldn't get off the launching pad. His presidential hopes had brought the Ohio senator to Mississippi several times and created a cadre of friends in this state, friendships that would last years afterwards.
This writer had the good fortune of first having met Glenn way back in March, 1962, only several weeks after his monumental flight into space, the occasion being the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington, D.C., when journalists honored all seven of the original astronauts. I still cherish the dinner menu autographed by Glenn as well as his fellow astronauts.
As a journalist and also an admirer, I was delighted that Glenn came to speak at the Neshoba County Fair to give Mississippians a chance to meet him. The following year he came back, flying into Jackson as a hopeful for the Democratic presidential nomination. I made sure I was among the small number of reporters who came out to meet him at Jackson's Hawkins Field, and I remained around to talk with him later.
Glenn couldn't muster enough delegates to stay the course of the 1984 primary race, and made an abortive attempt in 1988, winding up with a healthy campaign debt. When he was still trying to pay off the debt, some friends here had Glenn come back in order to raise some money for him. Even though I wasn't in a position to help with his debt, some friends asked my wife and me to attend a small luncheon with Glenn. It was a great occasion just to be in the company of an authentic, down-to-earth, American hero.
While Glenn the other day was giving dramatic proof to what older persons can accomplish, another guy also up in the septuagenarian class, Jimmy Carter, has come out with a new book (his 14th) entitled "The Virtues of Aging," which is valuable reading material for any older person. The former president admits when he told some friends about the title of his book, they reacted skeptically about what could be the "virtues of growing old?" Carter makes a strong case for his title through examples of older persons' achievements and his own personal experiences. Mind you, he had written the book even before Glenn made the most notable case for what older Americans can achieve.
Virtues of aging, Carter emphasizes, "include both the blessings that come to us as we grow older, and what we have to offer that might be beneficial to others."
Carter, at 74, is himself a remarkable example of how a man in his "second career," after being president of the United States, the most powerful figure in the free world, can well serve both his nation and humanity in momentous ways. As a tireless troubleshooter who has gone around the world to help resolve conflicts, from Haiti to Bosnia to Africa, Carter's contributions in the international field have several times put him on the short list for the Nobel Peace Prize.
And when not trotting around the world to stamp out conflagrations between nations, Carter, along with his wife, Rosyln, has been helping to stamp out disease and malnutrition in the Third World, and giving guidance to poor nations on producing vital foodstuffs.
Back home, he has been busy promoting human rights and democracy, and, with is own sweat, served as a primary backer of Habitat for Humanity, which now has spread now beyond his beloved Southland.
Though he no longer takes part in political battles, Carter does have some ideas about such things as fixing Social Security, which is so vital to the interests of older people.
Carter writes in "Virtues of Aging" that Washington politicians should brave even condemnation of the AARP and the Gray Panthers to make necessary changes to save the system. Among the changes, Carter says, should be a means test for more affluent Americans and even raising the age to receive Social Security payments.
You aren't going to find John Glenn or Jimmy Carter rocking and nodding on their front porch while there are still things to do.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.