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 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 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 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 and sought to end hunger and expand civil rights.
Yet, although he took controversial stances and paid for it politically, McGovern is remembered today as a man of uncommon decency and principle, who was true to himself. When he died, former GOP adversaries saluted him.
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 the Tour de France, has been dogged by allegations of doping for years. His defense has been that he never failed a drug test. But recently, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a report describing Armstrong as the ringleader of "the most sophisticated, professional 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 threatening anyone who might rat him out and pressing other cyclists to use banned substances.
That was the final straw. Armstrong was 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.
Readers can email Leonard Pitts Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.