The chairman and the senator

`CHAIRMAN GORBACHEV, may I introduce Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.'' We would like to be there for such an introduction, if it were to occur during the Soviet general secretary's scheduled visit to Washington, starting Dec. 7. Senator Helms, as well as several dozen members of the House of Representatives, is protesting a proposed address by Mr. Gorbachev to the Congress.

Mr. Helms has a point when he says the honor of addressing Congress is usually reserved for America's friends, not its enemies. Dislike of Soviet behavior runs deep. And deservedly so. Ignoring the past, there is enough to object to today: Moscow's efforts to suppress Afghanistan; its failure to respect basic human rights, including the right of Soviet minorities to emigrate; its fomenting trouble in the Caribbean, Africa; its constant opportunism against Western interests in Asia, the Middle East; its adversarial truculence, which costs the West billions to offset.

Still, it can be more important to get to know our enemies better than to honor our friends. Since President Reagan first met Gorbachev face to face, the rhetoric of animosity has given way to constructive dialogue, which could shortly lead to a treaty on midrange missiles. A congressional visit could be crucial to Senate passage of such a treaty, however unlikely it is that Helms might be brought aboard.

It would be good too for Gorbachev to meet Helms, who keeps Mr. Reagan's feet to the fire on so many foreign and domestic issues. He not only might better understand what the American President is up against, but he would get a glimpse of what open Western democracy is all about. The Soviets can crush a critic like Boris Yeltsin, the former Moscow party official who dared say Gorbachev was not moving fast enough on reforms. We do not crush critics here.

Gorbachev wants to meet with American businessmen. He seeks trade that could bring advanced technology to the Soviet Union. He will meet resistance on this, until the general US-Soviet climate measurably improves. Such meetings could be useful, however: The Western market economy - in which Japan's Sony Corporation can buy CBS's record division for a cool $2 billion, while markets are invented for froufrou products from Hula-Hoops to wacky wall-walkers - must baffle socialist central planners.

Still, one aspect of the Gorbachev visit outweighs the rest: the human element.

Reagan often said in his campaign speeches that he wanted most to secure a peaceful world for the future's children. We were struck by how often this theme occurs in letters from readers.

Not America's industrial arsenals, its skyscraper symbols of affluence, but its modest classrooms and family farms are what readers most want to show him. They seem less hyped on the ideological differences than concerned that the natural good and innocence of grass-roots America, visible in its children, be understood.

That's something both Mr. Helms and Mr. Gorbachev would do well to hear.

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