Time Capsule: Lift Off — John Glenn Launches 1984 Presidential Bid

Declaring that Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a “national tragedy and a national disgrace,” Sen. John Glenn of Ohio announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on this day in 1983.

Reagan’s presidency was wedded to an imaginary past resulting in “people sleeping on grates and families living in cars,” the 61-year-old former astronaut told a crowd of 1,800 cheering supporters packed into the John Glenn High School gymnasium in his hometown of New Concord, Ohio.

Glenn, a small-town boy who had been celebrated as a national hero when he became the first American to orbit the earth 21 years earlier, became the sixth Democrat to enter the race for his party’s 1984 presidential nomination.  The other declared Democratic candidates included former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, the party’s front-runner, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, Sen. Alan Cranston of California, South Carolina’s Ernest “Fritz” Hollings and Reubin Askew, the former governor of Florida.

During his speech, which was interrupted by spontaneous applause 17 times, the Ohio Senator called for a mutually verifiable freeze on nuclear weapons by the U.S. and the Soviet Union and urged the postponement of Reagan’s tax cuts scheduled for July  — both of which had become a kind of litmus test for candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination that year.  He also called for full employment and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Glenn’s greatest strength, however, was on national defense where few doubted his ability to go toe-to-toe with President Reagan.   But it was also seen as a potential weakness in winning his party’s nomination.  Hoping to mollify his party’s dovish critics, the Marine fighter pilot-turned astronaut promised to go further than a nuclear freeze and said that he would actively negotiate reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both the Soviet Union and the United States.

“All our greatness, all our dreams, and all that we cherish can vanish in the blink of an eye,” said the two-term Ohio lawmaker.   “In today’s world, every word and deed of the president of the United States can move us closer to annihilation or closer to peace…I’ll stand up for the military and I’ll also stand up to the military when that is what our national interests demands.  Our task is clear,” he concluded.  “This generation must seek not just to end war once it has started, but to end war once and for all.”

Running a distant second to Mondale in national polls at the time of his announcement, Glenn’s candidacy failed to excite his party’s base and he withdrew from the race in mid-March after posting a disappointing showing in the South on Super Tuesday.

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