At age 97, Chuck Yeager has "escaped the surly bonds of Earth" -- again. A clever Twitter user, who bills himself as God, produced as short and clever a eulogy as you're ever likely to read: "Chuck Yeager just got here FAST."
In the mid-1980s, I had the pleasure of interviewing the famous test pilot. The subject was nothing in particular, although I couldn't help but asking a political question. His old rival John Glenn had recently run, unsuccessfully, for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, and Yeager made it clear that when it came to Glenn, bygones were not bygone.
When the first American to orbit the Earth passed away four years ago today, all of the original Mercury space program astronauts were gone. "The last of America's first astronauts has left us," said President Obama, "but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens." He added, "John always had the ‘right stuff.'"
The commander-in-chief was using a phrase popularized by writer Tom Wolfe, whose 1979 blockbuster on the early space program incongruously made Chuck Yeager a household name. Until then, Yeager was mainly known in the flying fraternity of pre-NASA aviators who pushed "the envelope" in the skies above Edwards Air Force Base years before John F. Kennedy had committed Americans to landing on the moon. Regarding Sen. Glenn's failed presidential bid, Yeager told me that his famous frenemy had gone about it the same way he did everything: all wrong.
Yeager was half-kidding, but now they can argue about it in heaven. When we think back on the 1983-84 election cycle, it seems that the large field of accomplished Democrats vying for the nomination were on a fool's errand. Perhaps one of the others would have done better than Walter F. Mondale, who managed to carry only his home state of Minnesota against Ronald Reagan, but election results only seem inevitable in hindsight, as a bipartisan Capitol Hill hearing on this date in 1983 reminds us.
The event was orchestrated by a Massachusetts Democrat, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and Oregon Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield. The subject was Armageddon. At a time when the Cold War that had fueled so much of the space race was continuing, and becoming more bellicose, Kennedy and Hatfield invited eight pro-nuclear-freeze scientists -- four from the U.S. and four from the Soviet Union -- to describe what an exchange of weapons of mass destruction would mean for this planet.
The nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s eventually fizzled out, in no small part because the very president whom liberals liked to paint as a nuclear cowboy effectuated the first serious arms reduction treaties in modern history.
But what about Ted Kennedy hosting Russian scientists in 1983? What did that signify? For one thing, it showed that the youngest Kennedy brother had made his peace with the idea that he would never be president of the United States. If you think about it this way, it was the first time since the end of World War II that none of Joseph P. Kennedy's four sons harbored that ambition.
Joe Jr., a pilot every bit as brave as Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, had died over the English Channel during the war. Jack had survived his own harrowing mishap in the Pacific -- and realized the dream. Five years after his assassination, however, Robert Kennedy was martyred in Los Angeles. Teddy, the last one standing, was always the most problematic -- and his hopes had seemingly been dashed in 1969 among the lies and tragedy at Chappaquiddick. But in 1979, he made his bid, challenging an incumbent Democratic president in the process, and nearly getting there.
Ted Kennedy's challenge to Jimmy Carter got off to a shaky start with a Nov. 4, 1979, interview with Roger Mudd in which he stumbled over the most obvious question: Why do you want to be president? Nine months later, however, as he conceded to Carter, Ted Kennedy closed the loop, going from being one of the least articulate viable presidential candidates to one of the most eloquent. He concluded his Madison Square Garden concession speech at the Democrats' national convention with words that could apply to any group that ever worked together for a cause larger than themselves:
"Someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again.
"And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:
"I am a part of all that I have met
Tho' much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are --
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
"For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end," Kennedy concluded. "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.