Glenn And Metzenbaum: A Feud For The Ages (With A Happy Ending)

Jan 5, 2019

There has never been a relationship in the history of Ohio politics like the often-prickly, always competitive one of John H. Glenn Jr. and Howard Metzenbaum.

Two men linked forever in the history of Ohio politics.

And two men who produced two of the most memorable moments in my 45 years of covering politics – one where Glenn verbally sliced and diced Metzenbaum like a ripe tomato and, most likely, cost him his U.S. Senate seat; and another, years later, when Glenn came to Metzebaum's rescue and used his personal cachet as an bona fide American hero to save Metzenbaum's bacon in a tough re-election campaign.

These were two men – both Democrats – who served together in the U.S. Senate for about 14 years; two men who began their careers in politics as bitter enemies, running against each other twice in U.S. Senate primaries; who carried out their feuding in the halls of the Senate; and, finally, after both had established themselves as forces to be reckoned with in American politics, ultimately buried the hatchet – and not in each other's noggins.

It was fascinating and often entertaining, the kind of political theater that comes along occasionally but not nearly often enough, for those addicted to politics.

They could not have been more different personally.

There was Glenn, the ruddy-faced boy from the tiny Muskingum County village of New Concord, who was eight years old when his father took him to a field outside of Cambridge, Ohio, where a daredevil pilot was giving the locals rides in an open-cockpit biplane.

Those few minutes soaring above the rolling hills of eastern Ohio were enough to set young John Glenn on a path that would lead him to become a Marine fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War, and later, to be one of the seven original Mercury astronauts – the first American to orbit the Earth in a space capsule in Feb. 1962.

Thirty-six years later, after nearly a quarter of a century as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, he returned to space at the age of 77, a crew member aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

Glenn passed away in Dec. 2016 at the age of 95.

John Glenn speaks to reporters on May 8, 1974, after winning the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate. Glenn was addressing a rally at a Columbus Hotel when he received word that U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum had conceded.
Credit AP

Metzenbaum had lived a success story right out of the American Dream himself, but his was vastly different than that of Glenn.

Howard Morton Metzenbaum, born in 1917 in Cleveland and who died in 2008 at the age of 90, was the grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Hungary. His own father, Charles, scraped by selling the goods of bankrupt companies.

Young Metzenbaum showed an early inclination to make money. While at Ohio State University, he ran a bike rental business, and played the trombone for pay outside of Ohio Stadium before football games.

In 1939, he entered Ohio State's law school, making money on the side drafting legislation for state lawmakers.

After law school, he ended up in the state legislature himself, serving in the House from 1942 to 1947 and as a state senator until 1951. He ran for Senate majority leader and lost, blaming anti-Semitism for his defeat.

He got out of politics for a while and became a very rich man.

He was, as he said, "born knowing how to make money."

Metzenbaum and a partner set up one of the first commercial parking lots built at Hopkins Airport in Cleveland. It was such a success, they quickly expanded their airport parking empire nationwide.

Metzenbaum went on to co-own the Sun Newspapers, a chain of suburban weeklies, and 17 Avis car rental franchises.

He was a very wealthy man by the time he was ready to get back into politics in 1970.

He had managed Sen. Stephen Young's re-election campaign in 1964 – a campaign where Glenn, after being encouraged by the Kennedy clan to get into politics, planned on taking on Young in the Democratic primary.

But a bizarre accident took him out of the race. Glenn slipped in the bathroom while shaving and injured his head on a shower door. He was plagued by an inner ear problem and was unsteady on his feet for months, making campaigning impossible.

In 1970, though, Glenn was back in shape and was ready to run for the seat held by the retiring Young. So, too, was Metzenbaum.

This looked like a slam-dunk for Glenn, who had 95 percent name recognition with Ohio voters, compared to only 10 percent for Metzenbaum.

Improbably, Metzenbaum won a narrow victory over Glenn in the primary.

The Cleveland Democrat had simply run a better campaign.

Glenn took way too much for granted.

Metzenbaum lost the general election to Robert Taft Jr. But in 1973, after the Watergate Saturday Night Massacre, where Richard Nixon's attorney general and deputy attorney general refused to carry out Nixon's order to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, Nixon turned to a Republican senator, Bill Saxbe, to be his new attorney general.

That left Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan, a Cincinnati Democrat, with the power to appoint Saxbe's replacement, and he chose Metzenbaum.

But Metzenbaum had to run for election to a full term in 1974. And, once again, he found himself embroiled in yet another primary battle with Glenn.

It was then that Metzenbaum made the biggest mistake of his political career.

A whopper of a mistake.

For some reason, he suggested, loudly and often, that while he himself was a successful, self-made businessman, John Glenn, a career Marine officer, "had never held a job."

On May 5, 1974, at the Cleveland City Club, the two debated and Glenn used the occasion to lay into Metzenbaum for the claim that he had never held a job:

Howard, I can't believe you said I have never held a job.

I served 23 years in the United States Marine Corps. I served through two wars. I flew 149 missions. My plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 12 different occasions. I was in the space program. It wasn't my checkbook, but it was my life on the line. It was not a nine-to-five job where I took time off to take the daily cash receipts to the bank.

Glenn was not nearly done with Metzenbaum, who sat there with a blank stare.

I ask you go with me, as I went the other day, to a veterans' hospital and look at those men, with their mangled bodies, in the eye and tell them they didn't hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job.

By the time Glenn was finished, they nearly had to scrape Metzenbaum off the floor. He was thoroughly humiliated. There was nothing he could say.

It was one of the top five political comebacks I have ever heard in hundreds of debates, at every level of politics.

And Glenn didn't stop there. His campaign produced an ad with an endorsement from former First Lady Jackie Kennedy and a repeat of the I've held a job message from Glenn.

You could, at that moment, stick a fork in Howard Metzenbaum. He was done.

Glenn won the primary and defeated Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk in all 88 of Ohio's counties.

The Republican Perk had no chance either. In 1972, he had accidentally set his hair on fire with a welding torch at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Cleveland. He produced guffaws nationwide when his wife turned down an invitation to a social event at the Nixon White House because it was her regular bowling night. That actually went over pretty well with his constituents.

Metzenbaum, on the other hand, was far from done.

In 1976, he took on Robert Taft Jr., who had defeated him in 1970. This time, though, Metzenbaum won and stayed there until he decided not to run for re-election in 1994.

Then U.S. Senator-elect Howard Metzenbaum in 1976.
Credit AP

Metzenbaum, with his reputation as a populist firebrand, and Glenn, a more low-key, detail-oriented senator, had chilly relations for years.

The ice began to melt a bit in 1984, when Glenn decided to launch an ill-fated bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Metzenbaum, to the surprise of many, offered help to Glenn, although it did little good.

I spent a lot of time with Glenn, stumping around New Hampshire with his wife Annie in an under-funded and somewhat disorganized campaign. The kind of retail politics that works in New Hampshire, where the candidate must shake every hand and kiss every baby was not Glenn's style.

And he became frustrated by the fact that he would sometimes go into a restaurant or a senior citizens' hall and people would mistake him for his fellow astronaut and Ohioan, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

It was a thoroughly discouraging experience.

Gary Hart won New Hampshire with 37 percent of the vote, while Walter Mondale finished second with 28 percent. Glenn was a distant third at 12 percent.

Perhaps Metzenbaum's help in 1984 didn't move the dial on Glenn's presidential campaign, but, four years later, Metzenbaum found himself in a position where he could use his former rival's help.

Republican George Voinovich – later a U.S. Senator and governor of Ohio – was Cleveland's mayor in 1988 when he took on Metzenbaum.

During the campaign, the Voinovich campaign launched an outrageous attack that implied that Metzenbaum, a father and grandfather, was "soft'' on child pornography because of a vote on a piece of obscure legislation.

It was a ridiculous, untrue and vicious accusation. It was totally unlike Voinovich, who was a gentleman and a decent family man who was the last person you could imagine stooping this low. I've always believed Voinovich was getting some very bad advice in that campaign.

Glenn immediately stepped forward and offered to record a TV ad defending Metzenbaum.

It was a brilliant spot.

Just Glenn, standing in front of the camera on a blank set, a serious look on his face and a hard-edged tone of voice.

He ripped Voinovich up one side and down the other, saying it was an atrocious lie and that Voinovich should be ashamed of himself.

It was a powerful ad, coming as it did from the most respected Ohio politician on either side of the aisle.

I asked Glenn later that year why he offered to do the ad, given his somewhat rocky history with Metzenbaum.

"Yes, we have had our differences,'' Glenn told me. "But I couldn't stand by and let this stand. Howard Metzenbaum deserves better. The voters deserve better."

And that was how one of the classic feuds of Ohio politics came to a close.

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