Honorable. It was the word I chose to summarize Rick Santorum’s campaign and it’s the word Joe Klein chose, as well. Say what you want about Rick Santorum — that he was whiny or too social-issues-centric or a longshot candidate from the start — but his campaign was an object lesson in the winningness of integrity and humility:

Santorum said a fair number of horrifically stupid things along the way (he might even agree with that assessment in a few cases); I think he is profoundly misguided on issues ranging from the individual health insurance mandate to bombing Iran to homosexuality. But I don’t think he’s taken any of those positions because they were convenient or popular with the base. He believes the things he says, which is rare enough in American politics. And I’m happy that he’s the sort of person who is willing to argue those things out with someone like me, because we have far too few of honest arguments these days in our political process–real discussions, where one person states his case without tricks or soundbites, the other listens and responds. Mitt Romney, for example, has run a very different sort of campaign–not just with reporters, but also with his audiences.

Most of all, as I’ve written, I respect and admire Santorum’s personal life, the courageous and inconvenient decisions he and Karen have made about their children, and especially Bella. I know that it was easier for the Santorums than for most to home school their children and care for a baby with a tragic illness. They had money and help; most people don’t. But that doesn’t mean those decisions were easy, or that the anguish involved in a weekend like the one they just spent in the hospital with Bella is any less.

So I’m happy he ran for President. He made me think about things I don’t usually think about. He forced me to defend things I think about a lot. I wish him and his terrific family the very best.

In the brief time that I’ve been working in political journalism, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and/or interview a number of congressmen, senators and presidential candidates. So far, I’ve been fortunate to not have any really negative experiences, but I’ve learned pretty quickly what Klein alludes to — that politicians spin incessantly, even when they wouldn’t have to, even when a reporter is friendly and fair. Of the interviews I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had with outright politicians (as opposed to staffers or officials), two stand out — an interview with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker more than a year ago and a one-on-one phone interview with Rick Santorum just months ago. They stand out not because they’ve been my two “biggest” interviews to date, although that’s true, but because Walker and Santorum alone of the politicians I’ve talked to seemed oblivious to their own significance. They had a message to communicate — and the communication of that message mattered more to them than what I thought of them personally. As a result, I think more highly of both of their persons than I do of other politicians I’ve met.

There’s a lesson in there for all conservatives: It’s time we got out of the way of our own ideas. The cult of personality that so characterizes not just politics but the entire realm of political communications is fun, but often counterproductive. If an idea is a good one, who cares whose it is?