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The Good Citizen

The citizen feels conflicted today. A set of almost unconsciously recorded standards for public behavior is being violated.

The norms of social behavior were once easily represented by school report card numbers: "1" for attentiveness, "2" for occasional talkativeness, and "3" for getting caught skipping class or for abrasiveness. The system could break down under a teacher's tyranny or a false accusation. It put humor at risk. An exceptional talent could pretend to be a sheep. But on the whole the system got across that social behavior had a value apart from academic performance - the functioning of the institution for everyone's benefit required an alertness to self-government.

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So what is the common citizen to think of Newt Gingrich and of the Dallas Cowboys?

Mr. Gingrich probably gets a "3" for skirting tax rules barring charities from acting in partisan politics. He arguably rates a "3" for leading the uncivil tone of public debate the past three years. But for his imaginative work as a lawmaker, for drawing together a partisan set of initiatives that won him the speakership of the House, he still gets an "A." When does a mistake become so egregious that a student - and student of American politics Mr. Gingrich is - gets expelled or barred from a role in school government?

Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa, who has led the House inquiry into the Clinton Whitewater affair, thinks Gingrich's continuing as Speaker will compromise ethical standards. Mr. Leach is no scold, and his view has sobered Gingrich's supporters. But if, brushed back by the reaction to his mistakes, Gingrich gains a new attentiveness to process and relationships, he can still be effective and should have the chance of proving himself so.

The Dallas Cowboys in earlier days, led by a pair of straight-arrows - coach Tom Landry and quarterback Roger Staubach - were known as "America's team." Drug suspensions, controversy with the National Football League over owner Jerry Jones's go-it-alone endorsement policy, and recent sex-abuse allegations against star players have left last year's Super Bowl champions shaken. Dallas seems to have pushed the envelope too hard for several years now, and their ouster in the playoffs last weekend by a new straight-arrow franchise, the Carolina Panthers, comes as no surprise. Dallas will have to rethink the value of "character" - a Panthers recruiting priority - in order to rebuild.

Sports, of course, has long been linked to citizenship. So it is troubling to see so many athletes and coaches in all sports venues today get caught out in degrading behavior. Athletes, like politicians, perform in a world of big dollars. Its temptation is observed in swagger, a modern term for hubris.

Today there is little safety in sheepness or conformity. In the business world there are companies like Failure Analysis Associates, a group of engineers and scientists that investigate events surrounding tragedies like the Challenger space shuttle explosion, or the 1992 Chicago flood caused by a break in a freight tunnel. Causes of failures in public life need analysis too - dispassionate analysis - as to the mistakes in perceptions, values, or processes of highly visible people.

Society should be in the success business, not the failure business. How highly visible people learn from their mistakes can be more useful to us than choruses of condemnation.

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Democracy is about the second chance.

As a concept, citizenship is more universal than might first appear. One can say he is a citizen of his school, his family, of his temple. Hence we can feel shaken when standards lapse in any of these venues. And the least act of good citizenship, of aligning self with the good of the whole, can sustain us.

*Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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