YOU DIDN'T HAVE to love either his politics or his movies to find something specially poignant in the death of John Wayne. You didn't even have to be crazy about the fact that Congress and the president had arranged to have a congressional medal struck in his honor just a short while ago. The last years of Mr. Wayne's life, and his death on Monday night in California, were something wholly apart from the issues raised about whether and when and for whom special congressional medals are dished out - they were years of life and a moment of death that inspired great sympathy and respect.

We have become a nation of deathbed-watchers in the age of the celebrity and at a time when the progressive ravages of cancer, as they affect our leaders and heroes and stars, may be understood and even viewed by millions. Those millions comprise the curious, the empathetic, the anxious, the titillated and the frightened, and in some degree each watching individual has within him elements of each. The afflicted celebrity - so the drill goes - gets the word from the doctos; and almost as soon, the rest of us hear the news: It is cancer . Whereupon the death-watch begins, although it is marked by aspects of contest too - a contest between the person and the disease and one in which grace and luck and dignity and valiance are all scored.

Mr. Wayne scored well in all of these categories, including, for a time, luck. Bluff and bravado - that was the look of the man combatting the killer everyone knew would prevail in the end. He had beat "the Big C," as he put it when he won an early round a few years ago. Surely his cockiness and evident, if temporary, success reassured people, just as his subsequent unwillingness to subside into invalidcy heartened and moved them. How could he have made it out of that hospital last winter? How could he now already be tromping around the stage, picking up special trophies and commendations as fast as his professional colleagues and innumerable fans and friends could serve them up? There was valor there and toughness too, an exercise of human will in the face of adversity that far transcended the romantic screen version of those strengths for which John Wayne, the actor, had become famous.