On Senator John Glenn
July 19, 1979
Interviewed by Associate Senate Historian
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The following is an excerpt from the oral history interview with former Secretary of the Senate Francis R. Valeo, conducted by Senate historian Donald Ritchie on December 11, 1985.
Francis Valeo: Yes, John Glenn is one of the really fascinating characters. He certainly is a character that should be in the Senate. He brings a note of individuality into it, not because he's an astronaut, I don't think that's a good endorsement. We'd have astronauts coming out of our ears in the Senate if you thought that was enough to make a man a senator. But Glenn has developed greatly as a senator in my judgment. I never thought he was for the presidency. He did, but that, I think, came from his astronaut background more than his Senate background. He was on one of the Mansfield trips to China—I think it was…. I can't remember whether it was the second or third. I got to know him well on the trip, he and his wife who is a charming woman—Annie. He handled himself on the whole quite well on the trip to China. There was not that much curiosity yet with our astronauts in China, it was still early in the game.
He did commit one faux pas, although he didn't know it, and anybody could have done it. We had a Chinese escort, a woman who later became the Chinese ambassador to Romania. She was a real firebrand from the revolution and she'd been one for a long time. She was one of Mao's strong supporters. I can't remember her name now, Madame maybe Chung or Chong. Anyhow, she called me aside, because we spoke a little bit occasionally in Chinese. By that time, after two years of working on it, reworking it, my Chinese had improved a little bit. She said to me on the side in a very conspiratorial way: "What does Senator Glenn think he's doing?" [laughter] I said, "Well, what's the matter?" She said, "He showed me a map in which Taiwan is colored differently than China!" [laughter] I said, "Well, I'm sure he meant nothing by that." [laughter] It was a National Geographic map, and the National Geographic Society hadn't caught up with political events yet, so they showed Taiwan in a different color. I said it’s nothing, but she was convinced it was part of the business of detaching Taiwan. She immediately tied it into a conference we’d had of Sinologists headed by the fellow up at Harvard, what's his name?
Donald Ritchie: [John K.] Fairbanks.
Francis Valeo: He astonished me. We were in Xinjiang province and we went to what at that time passed for a department store in what the Chinese call "Wulumuqi" but which I guess we go by the name of "Urumchi,” which was the capital of Xinjiang province. They had on display in the department store quite an assortment of Chinese-made musical instruments. He picked up a trumpet and blew it as though he'd blown it all his life. I found out that he and his wife were both in the high school band together. That's where they had originally met. I thought it was a very charming thing.
Then he kept saying while we were in China, "God, you can't get ice cream anywhere!" He wanted to try the ice cream in China and we hadn't come upon it anywhere. Our last stop, I think, was in Shanghai. In what had become then a custom for the Mansfield trips, we gave a dinner for the people who had traveled with us. I usually made the arrangements for the dinner, so I went down to the hotel where we were going to have the dinner, and I asked them if they could possibly get some ice cream for the dinner. And they did. So he finally got ice cream, and he was delighted. It was a lovely, lovely thing. He was a real asset on the China trip. I don't think he showed any great depth of understanding of the problems, but he certainly had an appreciation of the difficulties that were involved.
Again, I thought his great weakness was that he didn't know what poverty was. So many of these newer politicians have had that problem. They didn't have the experience from the Depression. They don't know what poverty is, and there is a lot of poverty in the United States. It’s a…. He had a kind of…. I think he has a full appreciation of, again because of his technological background, the nuclear problems. I don't know that he's got any solutions for it. I haven't heard anything that makes sense. I never thought that the Nonproliferation Treaty was going to do a damn bit of good, not unless the two primary proliferators did something about it, which was ourselves and the Soviet Union. There was no likelihood that that treaty could hold, that we could hold a monopoly together with the Soviet Union over these weapons. But at least he understands the dangers of it.
I was sorry to see him make the run for the presidency. I knew he was not going to make it. I knew that when most of my Republican friends eagerly asked whether Glenn was going to be the candidate, as though they were welcoming him. He was too close to the Republicans in his viewpoints, but a good man, basically a good man. He's made, I think, a positive contribution in the Senate.