My Big Trade In Atlanta With John Glenn

Aug 5, 2017

Having been one of millions of little kids in this country who worshipped John H. Glenn Jr. when, as a Mercury astronaut, he became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, it still boggles my mind that as an adult, I got to know him so well.

But it never really occurred to me that, in 1988, I would be sitting on the couch with Glenn in his hotel suite at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, trading political buttons with him.

But I did.

Glenn, who passed away last December at the age of 95, is by far my favorite of the countless politicians I have known over the years.

Sen. John Glenn and Howard Wilkinson
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

It has nothing to do with his politics; it has much to do with the man – the man who, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1974, treated me, a naïve and nervous reporter for a college newspaper, like I was someone important, someone worth talking to.

One of the most famous people on the face of the Earth treated a somewhat goofy college newspaper reporter with respect, as if I were from the New York Times or something.

I'll never forget that.

I covered that 1974 campaign, where Glenn defeated Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk rather handily for a U.S. Senate seat, for The Post, the student newspaper at Ohio University.

Ten years later, working for the Cincinnati Enquirer, I was trudging through rounds of blizzards with Glenn and his wife Annie, as he campaigned up and down the state of New Hampshire, in what turned out to be a futile bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Four years later, Glenn didn’t try again for the Democratic nomination in a year when the presidency was wide open, with Ronald Reagan finishing his second term.

After a rather brutal series of primary battles, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis emerged as the party's presidential nominee; and the party converged on Atlanta for the Dukakis coronation.

But Glenn was very much interested in being Dukakis' vice presidential running mate.

In the end, Dukakis' short list of veep candidates came down to Glenn and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.

Dukakis ended up choosing Bentsen, in the forlorn hope that Bentsen would somehow sway Texas and its 29 electoral votes away from the Republican nominee Vice President George H.W. Bush, a Texan.

That turned out to be a complete bust. Bush took 56 percent of the vote in the Lone Star State and stomped Dukakis nationally, winning 426 electoral votes to 111 for the Massachusetts governor.

Glenn was disappointed in being passed over, but it was probably for the best, given the beating Dukakis took in the election.

I was in Atlanta that summer for the Democratic National Convention, staying in a hotel on the north side of downtown with the Ohio delegation. John and Annie Glenn were staying in somewhat fancier hotel occupied by the Democratic National Committee and located closer to the Georgia Dome, the convention site.

I had seen Glenn at an Ohio delegation breakfast on the first day of the convention; and asked the senator if he would sit down for an interview and talk about the Democratic ticket, his role and the fact that he was passed over.

He said, Sure, come on down to the hotel about 2 o'clock.

This was a bit of a coup for me; I was the only Ohio reporter who had an interview with Glenn; and you can bet I was going to be there.

I took off to walk down Peachtree Street in the sweltering heat. Along the way, I passed dozens of vendors on the streets, selling political buttons and other memorabilia of the 1988 Democratic convention.

Presidential nominating conventions draw the street vendors like flies; and they make a bundle off the 20,000 or so convention-goers over a four-day convention.

I've been to 16 of these things, Democratic and Republican, and I always dump way too much of my money on my political campaign button collection, stuffing as many as I can into my laptop bag, which sort of slows down the security screening process. But it is worth it to the serious collector.

One vendor, about a block from Glenn's hotel, had a button that struck my eye. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it.

It featured a Civil War-era photo of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general raised in Lancaster, Ohio, who led the famous "March to the Sea" in 1864 that ended up crippling the Confederacy and hastened the end of the Civil War.

Before taking a left turn towards Savannah and the Atlantic coast, Sherman ordered that Atlanta, a critical rail and supply center for the Confederates, be burnt to the ground. You don't have to be a Civil War scholar to know that. If you have seen the movie, Gone with the Wind, you will know.

The city was essentially destroyed by fire and had to be re-built.

The button with Sherman's photo had the following inscription: Gen. William T. Sherman: Father of Modern Urban Renewal.

Folks in Atlanta would not have found this amusing. They have long memories; and "Sherman" is a dirty word there to this day.

Of course, I bought it.

I stuck it in my pocket. Entered the hotel; took the elevator to the floor of Glenn's suite; and knocked on the door.

The senator opened the door, greeted me warmly and invited me to sit with him on a plush, over-sized couch.

Annie's in the bedroom taking a little nap, he said, we can talk but keep it down a bit.

So we made some small talk first; and for some reason, I decided to pull the Sherman button out of my pocket. Actually, I knew he would be interested; he was a student of Ohio history and a man with a sense of humor.

I showed him the button.

He guffawed. I know people are said to have "guffawed" when they really just laughed out loud, but John Glenn guffawed. Loudly. Loud enough to wake up Annie.

That's the greatest button I've ever seen! I want to show it to Annie.

He took it into the bedroom to show his wife; I could still hear him laughing.

Glenn came back in, plopped down on the couch, and made a proposition.

I've got some buttons here, Glenn said, I want to swap you for this one.

"Well, Senator,'' I said, "That's OK; I'll just give it to you if you really want it. I'm sure I can get another one."

No, no, no, I want to swap. He ran back into the bedroom and came out with a handful of buttons. There were a few buttons from his ill-fated Senate race in the '60s; some buttons from the 1984 presidential campaign (most of which I already had). The one that caught my eye was a fairly large button with photos of both Dukakis and Glenn, and the inscription, "A New Beginning in '88/Dukakis-Glenn."

A button from a campaign tandem than never existed. Always a good collector's item.

"Well, Senator, if you don't mind, I'd like that Dukakis-Glenn button,'' I said.

No problem. More where that came from. It's a deal.

By this time, Annie had come into the room – her nap completely ruined – and her husband excitedly showed her the new acquisition to his collection.

That's nice, dear, Annie said. I would just suggest you don't wear it walking around Atlanta.

Sound advice, Mrs. Glenn.