"PATRICIAN" was the word that writers always attached to Henry Cabot Lodge, and to some extent it was the right one. His roots in America went back to the Mayflower, his ancestors had an impressive record of public service (six were U.S. senators), and there was family wealth to secure his standing.

But America does not guarantee its patricians the choicest public offices; they have to contend for them. Mr. Lodge, who died Wednesday at the age of 82, may be remembered more for some famous defeats with which he was associated -- in his own campaigns, in Republican Party politics, in Vietnam -- than for his victories, which were also considerable. The fact that he will still be remembered with fondness and respect for his conduct in good times and bad is a tribute to his courage, honor and good sense.

Mr. Lodge had a lot going for him in the career of politics he chose to pursue. He was handsome, well- spoken and capable of a wit that could be self-disparaging at times. He was three times elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, starting in 1936, with time out for distinguished Army service. In 1952 he did yeoman work for Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign but perhaps not enough for his own, and was narrowly defeated by a young John F. Kennedy.

For the next few years, Mr. Lodge, although out of the Senate, was probably more in the public eye than at any time in his life before or after. President Eisenhower chose him as ambassador to the United Nations and relied heavily on him for political and foreign policy advice. In that time of high Cold War emotions Americans watched televised U.N. sessions with awe and suspense, and Mr. Lodge appeared as a forceful adversary of the Soviets in some rather noisy encounters.

He was also by that time a confirmed internationalist. The grandson of the man who had led the Senate drive to scuttle U.S. membership in the League of Nations after World War I, Mr. Lodge had himself been an isolationist at the start of his career. But by 1959, he was saying, in a typical speech: "We must match our knowledge against the future -- not the past, and we must ask ourselves whether we are evolving as fast as the world is shrinking."

He was enough the respected national figure that leaders of both parties wanted him for some of their tougher assignments: as Richard Nixon's running mate in 1960, as Mr. Kennedy's and then Lyndon Johnson's ambassador to Saigon, as a principal figure in the unsuccessful effort to keep the Republican Party out of the hands of the Goldwater forces in 1964.

In 1979 Jimmy Carter called on him to help get SALT II ratified, and at the age of 78 he set out on what proved to be an unsuccessful effort to persuade the Senate. Along the way he gave an interview that provided a glimpse of the patrician attitude: ". . . I've been in this work all my life, and I don't have to worry aboout money. If people like me are not going to aspire to these offices, who is going to do it?" That's not a fashionable sentiment these days, but it has produced some good public servants, including Mr. Lodge.