Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's brave new crusade to get traditionally gruff and grumpy New Yorkers to be more polite to one another is a novel attempt to counter our national tendency toward rude self-absorption in the very city where bad behavior was perfected.

The mayor's idea is that living in an overcrowded, overpriced metropolis will be less stressful if accompanied by the application of good manners. Civility - what a concept.One can only wish the mayor luck. The cultural change he is proposing in the habits of millions of residents and tourists is nothing less than monumental.

Guiliani concedes that "the cynics and pessimists" will mock his initiatives and that he is chasing an ideal that may well be unattainable. "But in striving to get there, you keep making improvements in society," he explains optimistically.

Let us hope Congress is listening. That august body might learn something. It could certainly use some additional comity. What passes there for debate and dialogue deteriorates too often these days into partisan acrimony and insult.

The nasty mood that infects Congress was evident in the glee with which a supporter of House Majority Leader Richard Armey greeted New York Rep. Bill Paxon's decision to retire from Congress rather than challenge Armey for the leadership post. "He's a guy who would lie to your face and stab you in the back. We're going to miss him," the Armey backer was quoted as saying sarcastically.

Congress, of course, is not the only source of national bad temper. Arrogant road warriors represent a highway phenomenon that makes driving miserable for others. Civility is missing when people talk loudly in movies, dress sloppily, curse out loud, attack strangers for perceived slights on the streets and never say "thank you." But such impoliteness at the seat of government is more dangerous to the republic than, say, road rage.

A 1996 U.S. News & World Report survey indicated that 89 percent of those surveyed consider incivility a serious social problem. More than three quarters of those queried believe it has gotten worse in the past decade.

Guiliani's proposals are city-specific and not adaptable for Congress-cleansing. But the broad concept of improving the quality of life is an all-purpose winner that could usefully be absorbed on Capitol Hill.

The good mayor proposes to combat littering, blaring car alarms, cab drivers who speed, bicycle messengers who ignore traffic laws, impolite city workers and dirty streets. He has already cracked down on illegal jaywalking, irritating police officers who now have the awkward responsibility of writing tickets that anger wayward pedestrians. He is credited with reducing crime rates in part through enforcing laws against other nuisance crimes like turnstile jumping and public urination.

And he wants to require elementary school children to take civics classes in which they would be taught ethics, manners and consideration for others in hopes of influencing their behavior as adults.

It is too late for civics classes for members of Congress, but something needs to be done. Many lawmakers admit that tempers run too high and tongues lash out too quickly for regular bipartisan cooperation over legislation.

A year ago, 200 concerned members of Congress of both parties gathered at a Pennsylvania retreat to discuss how to build bipartisan trust and friendship. The limited usefulness of this was exposed two weeks later, when House GOP Whip Tom DeLay of Texas shoved Wisconsin Democrat David Obey on the House floor in an argument over lobbyist access. Each claimed to have been provoked by obscenities hurled by the other.

Congress has a long tradition of legislative hostilities, including in past centuries fisticuffs and canings. In recent years bitter polarization escalated sharply after Republicans won control of the House in 1994. The new GOP lawmakers wanted revenge for what they saw as past abuse, and the old Democratic solons predictably responded with surly dislike of the newcomers.

Republicans have disrespectfully called President Clinton by his first name on the floor of the Senate. House Speaker Newt Gingrich once had to block a plan by his GOP colleagues to wear Pinocchio noses during a speech by the president. A congresswoman, dismayed by a crude exchange between colleagues, questioned the congressional tradition of addressing fellow members respectfully: "Do we have to call the gentleman a gentleman if he is not one?"

One bit of ugliness did disappear, however, when House Republicans finally officially dismissed former California GOP Rep. Bob Dornan's claim that Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez had stolen the 1996 election from him. Dornan had created several scenes over the issue, including one when he called Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a liar and a coward for defending Sanchez.

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Two years ago, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd despairingly described the Senate as "more politically charged and ruthlessly partisan than I have witnessed in my lifetime." Byrd, 80, has served in the Senate for 39 years.

New Jersey Democrat Sen. Bill Bradley refused to seek re-election in 1996 because he found Washington politics "broken."

President Clinton confronted this lack of civility in his second inaugural address this January, noting that voters had chosen a president of one party and a Congress of another. "Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore" he said.

By demanding that New York City regain its dignity, Guiliani may be on a hopeless quest. But he is trying, and that is something.

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