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Civility in Politics

`THE gentleman from California,'' ``the gentlewoman from Connecticut,'' and so on - we perhaps don't often think of members of Congress in as formal a way as we heard Tuesday evening, when the escort committees to bring President Clinton to the House chamber for the State of the Union address were announced.

But maybe we should. Such formal language, obviously rooted in earlier centuries, though admirably adapted to a changing Congress, is a reminder of the standards of civility that body has long taken for granted.

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Those standards have shown some wear and tear lately. Although Speaker Newt Gingrich was statesmanlike in his upbeat predictions for the speech beforehand and in his decision not to comment afterward, others of his party were not so well behaved during the event itself: They often conspicuously withheld even perfunctory applause and at many points even hissed and booed. Some 20 GOP members either refused to attend or left early.

Nor has this been the only case of a breakdown of good political manners lately.

Every day, it seems, we hear of a new controversy over whether this or that ill-tempered remark should be struck from the record and/or apologized for. Speaker Gingrich must bear a measure of responsibility for fomenting this kind of politics, with his attacks on former Speaker Jim Wright and others.

It isn't just a matter of mere politeness but of substantive discussion: How do hissing and booing articulate a case in favor of making assault rifles legally more available to the public, for instance?

Wise men and women continually seek out reality checks on their own positions. They welcome those whose different backgrounds and points of view can provide them new insights.

The halls the president referred to the other evening as ``the sanctuary of democracy'' are not to be confused with the studios of a radio show. Politicians may be forgiven for indiscretions muttered at their own kitchen tables, but they need to learn to control their tongues elsewhere.

We need a full and open discussion: The nation has important business to be done. And basic civility, comity, respect for the motives and interests of one's opponents, or at least a willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt, in no way infringe on the ability of Congress to take up the big issues, but rather help it do so.

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