In the Tom Wolfe book and Philip Kaufman movie “The Right Stuff,” there’s a standout scene where astronaut John Glenn has just been pried out of his Mercury capsule because bad weather has scrubbed his exceedingly risky (“Our rockets always blow up") Atlas launch.
He is instantly confronted by a NASA bureaucrat who is mad because Glenn’s wife, Annie, doesn’t want to admit Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and attendant press corps, into her home. Annie is shy, in part because she has a pronounced stutter that causes her to speak very little.
Glenn picks up the phone, tells Annie it is her house and nobody gets in unless she says so. The NASA boss tells Glenn he should tell his wife to let the vice president in. If Glenn doesn’t do that, the bureaucrat threatens, the agency might have second thoughts about who gets to fly in its rockets.
At which point the other six astronauts -- the only people on the planet who might be able to do so -- make it clear that none of them is interested in taking Glenn’s place.
The scene is pretty powerful on its own. But it means even more if you know, from the story leading up to that point, that the other six of the Mercury 7 didn’t like John Glenn very much. They thought he was stuck-up, wouldn’t swear, didn’t drink and was a darling of the press because he was already fairly well-known for some flight records he had set as a Marine pilot.
Any one of them might have seized that moment to turn on Glenn, ingratiate himself with the powers-that-be, move up in the flight order, get on the cover of Life magazine by himself and go to meet the president at the White House.
But they didn’t. Partly because their elite corps was going to police itself. And partly because they knew that, in the matter at hand, Glenn was just right.
Kamala Harris is no John Glenn. Except that, like him many years after his astronaut days, she is a U.S. senator running in a crowded Democratic primary to deny re-election to a Republican incumbent.
And, in the last several days, Harris was the beneficiary of support from a handful of people who might have wanted to see her taken down a few pegs. But they stood by her as internet trolls and supporters of the sitting president started attacking her for being, alternately, too black to be president, or somehow not black enough.
It all stank so much of the “birtherism” movement, egged on for so long by the then-TV doofus who now sits in the Oval Office, that continued to insist against all evidence that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
The people who, in the short term, would gain the most from Harris being mired in such muck -- the other Democratic presidential candidates -- all made public statements not only decrying the racism implicit in the smears but also praising Harris as a candidate and as an American.
Tweets from Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Roarke, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee and, yes, even Joe Biden, showed a shoulder-to-shoulder attitude that American politics has far too little of.
Google fails me here, but I recall hearing a presentation from a woman expert of some kind -- psychologist, consultant, I forget -- who cited the same scene in “The Right Stuff” as an example of how men continue to dominate so much of life while women are held back.
Given the same choice as the other astronauts, she said, at least one of six women would have backed the authority figure, not their colleague, to the benefit of herself but the detriment of the many.
But today’s Democratic field, which not only includes several women but features partnered appearances, joint statements and shared selfies, offers some real encouragement for the future.
The right stuff, one might say.