Sen. John Glenn and NOW: the gaffe was the audience's

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I wasn't there. I can't report firsthand on the emotional heat generated as Sen. John Glenn spoke to the annual convention of the National Organization for Women (NOW) earlier this month. So perhaps it was only the group's high spirits that prompted yet one more example of the lack of logic displayed in the nation's public discourse.

On the surface, it was a small thing. Senator Glenn, in his role as a Democratic presidential contender, received resounding applause for his prepared remarks before the 2,000 delegates at the Washington, D.C., meeting. But minutes later, responding to a question about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and its failure to win ratification by the June 30, 1982, deadline, he found himself in deep water.

''Let me challenge you just a little bit on the ERA,'' he said to his audience, explaining that ''I think we all loafed on the ERA too much'' and that ''the opposition, those on the other side, they outworked us, they outhustled us in many respects.'' The hall erupted into catcalls, boos, and angry shouts. Afterward, the Ohio senator issued a hurried statement praising the ''tremendous sacrifice and hard work'' by NOW members and suggested that his original ''we'' meant the Democratic Party and ''those of us who hold national office.''

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At issue, here, is not the ERA, or the character of NOW, or even the logic (which Webster describes as ''the science of correct reasoning'') of Senator Glenn. At issue are those catcalls. What did the delegates think they were saying?

They were no doubt upset at hearing that their hard work was not hard enough. A thoroughly human reaction - one that any student who has labored mightily on a term paper only to earn a C+ can appreciate. But not, in the end, a reaction based on sound reasoning. By taking umbrage at the senator's words, the delegates appeared to suggest that the failure of the ERA could be traced to other causes. Did they really want to say that? What other causes might there be?

* The time was not ripe. To accept this reason would be to admit that no amount of hard work could have turned the trick - not, presumably, a conclusion NOW delegates would want to espouse. In that case, the frustration of those who did work hard should not be vented on Senator Glenn. It should be vented on their own leaders, who would have been guilty of misreading the unripeness of the times and urging their troops on to certain defeat.

* The opponents had the better case. Under such a formulation, again, hard work would be incidental: The ERA would have been lost because its opponents (who may have been lazier than its supporters) took a position that was so far superior to the pro-ERA side that the issue was lost before it began. That, too, is not a position NOW supporters would find comforting.

* The ERA was a badly flawed amendment. Perhaps everyone did work hard, and worked for a high calling. But maybe the language of the law itself did not fully capture the intentions of its framers nor appeal broadly enough to the public and its representatives. Were this the case, NOW officials would be guilty of failing to think through the consequences of the words upon which they had staked so much effort - again, not a comfortable conclusion.

In fact, Senator Glenn may have been saying the kindest thing he could: that the time was right, the cause just, the language sound, and only the effort inadequate. For despite his sadly opportunistic recanting, his original phrasing leaves little doubt that he did indeed mean to blame the women themselves and not the Democratic leadership. He didn't say, ''Let me apologize.'' He said, ''Let me challenge you'' - the way a good professor does in delivering a C+ to a student who can do better.

A small point - or is it? Is the response of the NOW delegation symptomatic? Is the nation drifting into illogic? Are we, as audiences, failing to demand of ourselves the necessary logical rigor - and failing, therefore, to establish logical public policies?

If the answer is ''Yes,'' the cure may lie with the educators. Sound reasoning is one of the finest fruits of education. Yet in the ongoing debate over education, precious little is being said about logic. We speak of the need for longer school days, higher salaries, more computers. But we also need to concern ourselves with our students' ability to ''engage critically and constructively in the exchange of ideas'' as a recent report by the Education Commission of the States puts it. For it is this failure of logic that plagues so many public-policy interchanges. Granted, the heat of the moment can produce a temporary logical meltdown; frustration can make just criticism seem terribly harsh. But sound public policy demands that logic win out in the end - after the catcalls have died away.

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