At a banquet during Nixon's first trip to China, recalls William F. Buckley, Nixon began toasting Mao and the other Chinese communist leaders so enthusiastically that "I would not have been surprised, that night, if he had lurched into a toast of Alger Hiss." Democratic leaders have a way of turning foolish in the presence of great dictators. Today the place for that is Moscow and the toast is for Mikhail Gorbachev, the great glasnostician.

Glasnost, openness, may apply to many areas of Soviet life, but human rights is not one of them. Gorbachev made that abundantly clear to the latest political pilgrims, a delegation of House members led by Speaker Jim Wright. Defending his own human rights record, Gorbachev complained about Secretary of State Shultz's recent Passover seder with Jewish dissidents at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. "Not a single normal person was there," he protested. "Only people who complained."

Mr. Gorbachev, your iron teeth are showing. Normal persons vs. complainers is precisely the distinction that the Soviets use to justify imprisoning dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. This practice is commonly attributed to KGB cynicism: a psychiatric hospital, after all, is at once a more concealable and a more terrifying place to repress dissidence.

But Gorbachev's remark seems to bear out the contrary thesis advanced by this country's leading student of Soviet psychiatry, Dr. Walter Reich. The commitment of dissidents to psychiatric prisons, he has argued, is not an act of pure cynicism. The truth is more horrible. They really do believe, as Gorbachev confirms, that dissent and normality are antonyms. The commitment of "complainers" to psychiatric care follows logically.

Gorbachev's other venture into human rights questions was equally enlightening. He suggested that the United States consider setting up separate homelands for minorities: blacks, Puerto Ricans and Polish-Americans. Rep. Mickey Leland, a black member of the delegation, said he found the remark "somewhat offensive." Said Leland, "Mr. Gorbachev was rather uninformed about the desires and aspirations of black people in America."

Surely the problem with Gorbachev's statement is not that it is uninformed. It is not that Gorbachev has not read public opinion polls regarding what American blacks think about being put on reservations. It is that the suggestion itself reflects a fundamental bias toward racial separateness. The antipluralistic prejudice that informs Gorbachev's remark makes it so distasteful. It is not his facts that are wrong but his values.

One might as well say that Al Campanis is misinformed about the buoyancy of blacks and Prime Minister Nakasone of Japan about minority IQ scores. Both were severely -- and correctly -- reprimanded for racist remarks about blacks. (Nakasone managed to denigrate Hispanics as well.) Campanis, vice president of the Dodgers, was fired. Nakasone, severely censured in the United States, had to issue an apology to the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses.

Don't expect one from Gorbachev. His indiscretion will be indulged. In fact, it will be indulged precisely by being treated as an indiscretion. Members of Congress keep emphasizing that his remark was made "off the cuff," as if that is somehow an extenuation. On the contrary. The fact that it was spontaneous makes it all the more telling.

And all the more inconvenient for Wright, who was moved to frantic damage control. He denied that Gorbachev said what he said, a very Soviet way of doing things. "He was talking in terms of what they are trying to do in order to create more integrity for their ethnic minorities in their country," said Wright. Not only is Wright contradicted by his fellow congressmen, who insist that Gorbachev was talking not simply about what he does with his minorities but about what America ought to do with its. But Wright's explanation echoes official propaganda about Soviet efforts to "create more integrity for their ethnic minorities." In fact, Soviet policy aims at ethnic amnesia, which is why so many non-Russian nationalists have resisted and earned a trip to Gulag for their efforts.

Hence Wright's final line of defense. "He's not foolish," so Gorbachev couldn't have said it. An interesting syllogism. If a fact (he said it) is inconvenient, propose a theory (he's not foolish) under which the fact cannot have taken place, even though it did. I'd like to see Wright fracture logic like that on behalf of an American president.

Stalin was, to borrow a prophetic phrase from a 19th-century Russian revolutionary, Genghis Khan with a telegraph. Gorbachev is Khrushchev with a tailor. Why is Gorbachev so readily extenuated by the leaders of the leading democracy? Because there is nothing that Western publics hunger for more than a communist with a human face. So when the smile reveals iron teeth, it is best to pretend we do not see them. Or better still, to argue that they cannot be there.