One guy was among the greatest losers in the history of politics, the other, one of the biggest winners in all of sports.
They were unalike men who shared little except recent headlines. But there was, in that brief juxtaposition, an object lesson for those who cared to see it.
The loser — George McGovern — made headlines by dying at age 90. He is famous for having been on the rump end of one of the most thorough election shellackings in history, cobbling together a measly 17 electoral votes in 1972 to Richard Nixon’s 520. But there was more to him than that epic loss.
McGovern, a decorated World War II fighter pilot before he became a Democratic senator from South Dakota, was an icon of liberal idealism long before both liberalism and idealism fell out of fashion. He famously came out against the Vietnam War when people were being called traitors and Communist sympathizers for so doing. Both in the Senate and after voters turned him out in 1980, he was a champion for humanitarian causes, sought to end hunger, expand civil rights, decriminalize marijuana.
Yet, though he took controversial stances and paid for it politically, McGovern is remembered today as a man of uncommon decency and principle, a man who was true to himself. When he died, former GOP Sen. Robert Dole saluted him, writing in the Washington Post of how McGovern attended the funeral of Pat Nixon, wife of the man who handed him that bruising defeat. Asked why he would want to be there, McGovern replied, “You can’t keep on campaigning forever.” The remark, wrote Dole, was typical of his former political foe, “a true gentleman who was one of the finest public servants I had the privilege to know.”
If you’ve got to be a loser, there are worse ways to be remembered.
And that brings us to the winner — Lance Armstrong — who made headlines by cheating, allegedly. Armstrong, seven-time winner of cycling’s Tour de France, has been dogged by allegations of doping for years. His steadfast defense has been that he never failed a drug test. But a few days ago, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a damning report describing Armstrong as the ringleader of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” The report, said to be based on sworn testimony from 26 people, including 11 former teammates, depicts him as threatening anyone who might rat him out and pressing other cyclists to join him in using banned substances.
And that was the final straw. Armstrong was formally stripped of his titles, banned for life, and dropped as a pitchman by Nike. He also stepped down from the cancer charity Livestrong.
Remember, once upon a time, when our parents told us, “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game”? But the spirit of the nation, the spirit of the age, is probably better summed up in the motto embraced by Al Davis, late owner of the Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby.”
There is nothing wrong with competing hard, with wanting to win, or with sacrificing to get there. Except when the thing you sacrifice is your own humanity.
So one hopes the object lesson here is not lost on us, that it is taken to heart — not simply by athletes using banned substances, but by “journalists” committing plagiarism, by kids scamming their way through school, by politicians who stand on both sides of every issue, by the whole inauthentic, cut-and-paste culture wherein appearance browbeats reality and cheating is so ubiquitous that, as a student caught up in a cheating scandal once put it, “it’s almost not wrong.”
There is something to be said for simply being who and what you say you are. In juxtaposing these two lives, these two fates, we learn that our parents were right, once upon a time. Better you lose with integrity than win seven times without.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c) 2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.