Toward the end of his campaign to become the 1984 Democratic challenger of Republican President Ronald Reagan, beloved American astronaut John Glenn brought mother-daughter duo Naomi and Wynonna Judd and their guitarist Don Potter along for a last-gasp tour of the South.
"For a week, Wynonna, Don and I performed as a trio entertaining at rallies for presidential candidate Senator John Glenn from Ohio," Naomi wrote in her 1993 autobiography Love Can Build a Bridge. "Wy and I got to know Secret Service men personally and set our luggage out in the motel hall each morning to be sniffed by German shepherds. Wy always wanted to pet and play with them.
"Traveling in the same limo or plane as John and his wonderful wife [Annie Glenn], we got accustomed to having our itinerary changed at a moment's notice for security purposes," she continued. "Our favorite part of this unique week came late one night as the darkened plane carrying us and representatives from the major networks and media began singing 'Amazing Grace.' John told Wy astronaut stories as she fell asleep."
As Naomi describes him, Glenn was nothing like the stereotypical, glad-handing politicians that typically populate Congress.
"A quip I once saw in Reader's Digest said, 'Most politicians are like diapers: they should be changed often, and for the same reason!'," she wrote. "But John Glenn is a rare exception and a true American hero in every sense of the word."
It wasn't unusual for White House hopefuls to associate themselves with country acts. In 1976, a duo including future star Gary Morris helped Jimmy Carter secure the Democratic Party nomination, while one of Carter's opponents that year, George Wallace, milked Grand Ole Opry member support during prior campaigns.
From Outer Space to the Senate Floor
Glenn was among the Mercury Seven test pilots selected by NASA in 1959 as its first astronauts. He was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven upon his 2016 death at the age of 95.
He achieved a famous first for the space program, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962 while flying the Friendship 7 spacecraft.
The space pioneer's Democrat affiliation dates back to at least his participation in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Indeed, it fell on Glenn to break the news of Kennedy's assassination to several of the former attorney general's 10 children.
"They all knew him," reads a 2018 opinion piece by the Wall Street Journal's Bob Greene. "When Glenn, as one of the original Mercury astronauts, was preparing to become the first American to orbit the Earth, he met President John F. Kennedy. After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Glenn maintained friendships with the rest of the family. He was in California on the night Robert Kennedy was shot, as were many of the children. In the hours afterward, some of the older ones went to their father's bedside. But Glenn and his wife, Annie, had accompanied the younger children back to Virginia aboard a plane sent by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, so they wouldn't have to wait for word in the Los Angeles hospital."
Glenn served his home state of Ohio in the US Senate for 25 years (1974 to 1999). In 1998, he returned to space at age 77 as part of the Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-95 mission.
Despite Glenn's national hero status and the popularity at the time of the big-screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (starring Ed Harris as Glenn), former vice president Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination en route to being routed in the general election by Reagan.
Had things gone differently for Glenn in the primaries, The Judds' current single as of November 1984, "Why Not Me," would've provided one heck of an election day slogan.
This story was originally published on May 21, 2021.
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