WHEN I was a younger man — shortly after the cooling of the Earth — I worked in and managed political campaigns. In addition to Ohio Gov. John Gilligan and Boston Mayor Kevin H. White, I worked on the presidential campaigns of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, and Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona, as well as the vice presidential run of Sargent Shriver. A casual student of 20th-century American political history will point out that none of these White House candidates ever got to give an inaugural address or lead an inaugural parade. I have some idea of what electoral defeat feels like.

I admire people who run for public office. For most of us, life is a series of uncelebrated successes or private setbacks. If you and I are the two finalists for the Big Promotion we both have our hearts set on, and you get the prize, when the news of your triumph breaks, it doesn’t include, “Shields was passed over because of lingering questions about his expense account” or “his, frankly, eccentric behavior at the company Christmas party.”

But when you dare to run for public office, everyone you ever sat next to in high school homeroom or double-dated with or carpooled with knows whether you won or, more likely, lost. The political candidate dares to risk the public rejection that most of us will go to any length to avoid.

Losing an election is both painfully public and publicly painful, and this is a good time to salute those admirable Americans who have lost with class and graciousness.

Adlai Stevenson of Illinois ran for president twice against the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower and lost twice. In his concession speech, Stevenson consoled his hometown supporters: “Someone asked me ... how I felt, and I was reminded of a story that a fellow townsman of ours used to tell — Abraham Lincoln. He said he felt like the little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”

Arizona Sen. John McCain was the definition of class as he conceded to Sen. Barack Obama on Nov. 4, 2008: “The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love. ... I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”

Eight years earlier, Vice President Al Gore, who had won the national popular vote, accepted the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision declaring George W. Bush the winner: “Almost a century and a half ago, Sen. Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln who had just defeated him for the presidency, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’ Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and God bless his stewardship of this country.”

Let us honor those American leaders who, in their moments of maximum public disappointment, rose above their personal pain, as patriots, to seek to heal the nation’s divisions. Let us pray that we may see their like again — soon — when we need it so desperately.

Mark Shields is best known for his work on CNN’s “Capital Gang,” where he debated issues with columnists Robert Novak and Al Hunt and Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson.

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