10/18/2012 12:30 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Winners and Losers

The political media has long treated politics as a sport and a contact sport at that. All the verbs and most of the adjectives are taken from the sports pages. And, of course, it is all about winning and losing. From this perspective, George McGovern goes down as an epic loser: 49 States went against him and for Richard Nixon in 1972.

But what if we judged political figures and candidates by more intelligent standards? The "winner" Richard Nixon, abdicated the presidency in disgrace. And the "loser" George McGovern continued on to become one of his generation's greatest humanitarians.

Throughout his public and private life, Senator McGovern was at the forefront of the struggle against hunger both in the United States and throughout the world. Though a decorated military hero, he led the opposition to the war in Vietnam. He has still to be recognized for his leadership in democratizing the Democratic Party and opening up its doors to women, minorities, and young people, thus avoiding a repeat of the chaos at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968 and bringing his party into the cultural mainstream emerging from the social revolutions of the 1960s and 70s.

Most politicians, especially those who lose and lose badly, disappear from public view. George McGovern refused to do so. That took some courage. His deep convictions would not permit him to disappear. If you believe in ideals strongly enough, you are not at liberty to abandon them simply because you did not obtain the office you sought, including the presidency. Continuing the fight is the definition of conviction, and of courage.

Losers are ridiculed for losing. They are lampooned with jokes and cartoons. It takes a very strong man or woman to suffer through that. But George McGovern did. And he continued throughout his life to pursue his sense of justice, equality, and fairness--the very purpose of the Party he once led. All the while, he and his family suffered Kennedyesque personal tragedies.

Nor is the insensitive political scale of winning and losing capable of weighing another factor of true leadership -- the caliber and quality of people the supposed loser attracts into public service. In George McGovern's case that includes Bill and Hillary Clinton, Senators and Representatives, State legislators, foreign service officers, federal judges, and many, many humanitarians.

Senator McGovern, for years after 1972, was fond of saying: "We may have lost, but none of us went to jail." Many of those closest to the "winner" went to jail or simply became political hacks.

If George McGovern represents the political losers of the world, then I for one am proud to stand with him.