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Like Republican Sen. Jesse Helms before him, GOP Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. should have known better.

But Helms' bad example last November didn't keep Bliley from repeating the same mistake this week by suggesting President Clinton could not safely visit North Carolina without heavy security measures.Just as Helms did not mean to be taken seriously, neither did Bliley. Likewise, both North Carolina lawmakers were quick to apologize. But innocent intentions and quick back-pedaling cannot entirely undo the damage.

Taken together, the remarks by Bliley and Helms leave the unfair but lingering impression that North Carolina cannot tolerate criticism of the military or the tobacco industry.

Even more vivid is the impression that North Carolina is represented by some lawmakers whose judgment falls so short of the mark that it worsens the poor reputation already suffered by the rest of Congress.

Worst of all, crime is so rampant and distrust of government is so pervasive that it's unconscionable - especially for prominent public figures - to give sick minds the impression that violence is acceptable. The White House in particular has long been the focal point of far too much paranoia without adding to it.

As a longtime defender of the tobacco industry, Bliley has a right to dispute current efforts to curtail smoking, even though the problem is especially acute among minors. But he had better get used to such efforts, since each new study shows smoking and the tobacco industry in an increasingly worse light. Moreover, like any other public servant, part of his job is to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.