And this grave gent lives on.

Early in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 account of the pioneering days of the U.S. space program, the original seven Mercury astronauts are introduced to the American press.

tom wolfe the right stuff

Although not unpossessed of healthy egos, the seven are taken aback by the universal hosannas with which they are greeted. After all, they haven’t done anything yet, besides endure a gruelling series of physical and psychological tests, an inordinate number of them involving having things inserted up their butts. Most of the seven are test pilots and fighter jocks, but the space program has selected them less for their skill than for their obedience, their unflappability under pressure – and their below-average height, in order to squeeze into the cramped Mercury capsule.

At their introductory press conference, they’re invited to hold forth on their patriotism, their churchgoing habits, their bravery – subjects they’ve been accustomed to avoid discussing in their flying careers, where manly laconism is the rule. Only one of the seven, future first-American-to-orbit-the-earth, senator, and presidential candidate John Glenn, is adept at spinning this type of self-promoting schmaltz. (“Glenn had not gotten this far in his career by standing still in a saintly fashion and waiting for his halo to be noticed.”) The other astronauts do their best to keep up.

But it hardly matters what they say. The ladies and gentlemen of the press know how to spin it:

It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950’s (as in the late 1970’s) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole. In a later period this impulse of the animal would take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power, and even minor ethical lapses, among public officials; here, in April of 1959, it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots who had volunteered to go into space. In either case, the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! One might regard this animal as the consummate hypocritical Victorian gent. Sentiments that one scarcely gives a second thought to in one’s private life are nevertheless insisted upon in all public utterances. (And this grave gent lives on in excellent health.)

Shortly afterward, the famed pilot and breaker of the sound barrier Chuck Yeager – who was disqualified from the astronaut search due to his lack of a university degree – makes the mistake of responding forthrightly to a reporter who asks if he’s disappointed at not being among the Mercury seven.

The thing was, he said, the Mercury system was completely automated. Once they put you in the capsule, that was the last you got to say about the subject.

Whuh!

“Well,” said Yeager, “a monkey’s gonna make the first flight.”

A monkey?

The reporters were shocked. It happened to be true that the plans called for sending up chimpanzees in both suborbital and orbital flights, identical to the flights the astronauts would make, before risking the men. But to just say it like that! . . . Was this national heresy? What the hell was it?

Fortunately for Yeager, the story didn’t blow up into anything. The press, the eternal Victorian Gent, just couldn’t deal with what he had said. The wire services wouldn’t touch the remark. It ran in one of the local newspapers, and that was that.

In those days, the press had the ability to bury comments that undermined the preferred narrative. Nowadays, of course, some self-appointed upholder of the “fitting moral tone” would pick up on Yeager’s impolitic comment and tweet it to the outraged masses, forcing the media to cover the story. Every outlet from the Washington Post down to Teen Vogue would rush out a thinkpiece explaining why Yeager’s comparison of astronauts to monkeys was divisive, irresponsible, and Not Who We Are – or, as they would have phrased it in the Eisenhower era, downright un-American.

M.

I referenced Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic while reflecting on Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism last year. As for the media’s determination to dress up our diet of bare facts with a side-order of the correct feelings, I’ve alluded to it in my discussions of Gell-Mann AmnesiaTonypandy, and Greta Thunberg’s unphotogenic snarl.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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