Spring came early in a special way to America when Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn stepped aboard the destroyer Noa, remarked of his just-vacated capsule, “it was hot in there,” and began sipping a glass of iced tea. It seemed that the frenetic search for a national purpose was over; we had rediscovered our natural virtue, and an orgy of national celebration was launched. “We have felt humbled by John Glenn’s trial,” confessed Max Ascoli in The Reporter, “close to each other, proud of our free institutions and of John Glenn. It has been a very good feeling.” To the sober New York Times columnist, James Reston, Glenn’s flight disproved “the sceptics and doubters, the witch-smellers and head-shrinkers, the debunkers and scoffers (who) had confused and frustrated the country.” Another big city newspaperman concluded that “some great turning point has been reached by our country in these past few days.” Glenn’s achievement was “a catalyst that almost instantly changed the temper of the entire nation. In the few dramatic hours of the space ride, we chucked our plodding, chronic despair and exchanged it for an optimism and bouyancy that we had almost forgotten. . . The long, cold winter is drawing to a close, and a warm and sunny spring is almost upon us. . . Suddenly it’s fun again to be an American.”

Glenn’s triple orbit was not only made to bear the myth of ritual rebirth, but supported a luxuriant variety of other assertions. Our man at the United Nations offered an appropriate internationalist interpretation; the Marine Colonel could be one of the “new men who, having seen our little planet in a wholly new perspective, will be ready to accept as a profound spiritual insight the unity of mankind.” He was seen also as a symbol of youthful virility, “a latter day Apollo,” by Time, “an example of youthful America,” by New York’s World Telegram & Sun, and generally as “the boy next door grown to admirable manhood.” This side of the Glenn image was better handled in the colour reproductions of Life, which put the new hero’s boyish appearance before the entire nation.

If youth could be heartened by Glenn, middle age could also draw assurance. Fifty-six year old Victor Anfuso, Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn, flew his private plane to Cape Canaveral on the day after the flight and whispered in Glenn’s ear, “life begins at 40.” The International Union of Electrical Workers declared that 40 year-old Glenn was a living demonstration of the continuing usefulness of older workers.

“Many of the very same companies (the Union periodical maintained) which bragged and trumpeted of their own contributions to Project Mercury’s success would have refused Colonel Glenn a job if he had applied for one. Why? Because Colonel Glenn is past 40 years old and many company policies prohibit the hiring of any workers past this magic milestone of maturity.”

The astronaut’s flight sustained other, more weighty burdens than internationalism, youthfulness, or the vitality of creeping middle age. An up-beat vision of America was the almost universally drawn moral, particularly by the most sophisticated commentators on the event. James Reston remarked that this “greatest ride since Paul Revere” was “pure Americana from start to finish: part Hollywood spectacular, part circus, part county fair—three times around the world in living colour and news from Heaven all the way.”The cheap, “chromium plated” side of American life predominated around the launching site. Writing under a Cape Canaveral dateline, Reston saw “the fancy, hard-drinking America . . . all around the base. For days it has been a jungle of inflammable blondes, Billy Minsky stripteasers, press agents, reporters, technicians and a considerable number of other characters who celebrated John Glenn’s achievement long before it came off, and some of whom were well into orbit long before he left the launching pad.”

Reston went on to develop a two-nation thesis; there was another spirit alongside the sleazyness, another nation best represented by John Glenn, “the other America of moderate, monogamous types.” The distinguished Times columnist was not the only one to use Glenn as a symbol of deep underground springs of virtue in America. His “courage, modesty, quiet patriotism, love of family and religious faith,” described exactly the kind of hero the nation needs. Perhaps Glenn’s influence would not “stamp out juvenile delinquency overnight,” Reston admitted, but his life provides just the “model of conduct” that epitomizes America. Woven into this theme was the springtime motif of ritual rebirth out of a period of gloomy depression. So universal was this interpretation, and so permeated was the entire Project Mercury with official cold war press-agentry that the contrived quality of Glenn’s image is sometimes hardly concealed. He is perhaps the classic example of what Geral Johnson called the hero “created by popular demand, sometimes out of the scantiest materials . . .” But the demand was pressing and Glenn’s virtues, natural or manufactured, were desperately needed. Reston registered a significant plea not to send the astronaut to the moon; we need such men here on earth!

Arthur Krock, another Times commentator, also saw great things in the Marine Lieutenant Colonel, even a political career. He reported that after Glenn’s speech to a joint session of Congress the old pros recognized “a latent talent for politics that might loft him into its highest reaches if he is willing to co-operate.” The veteran Krock, who was writing dispatches from Washington when William Howard Taft was occupying the White House, went along with this. Another seasoned observer “looking down from the press gallery at astronaut Glenn’s blond bald head” noted in The New Republic, the “considerable political finesse” with which Glenn handled Congress. A group of Republicans in North Las Vegas formed a Glenn For President Club, admitting that they did not know his political affiliation, but would “take him just as we did Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower.” Glenn would have none of this boosting; “I have no political ambitions, none whatever,” he said.