IN NORTH CAROLINA the other day President Carter sang a hymn of praise to tobacco. His ancestors had been North Carolina tabacco farmers, he said. This year's harvest promised to be a zinger. And he expressed gratitude to his hosts in a grower's warehouse for letting him "see at first hand the beautiful quality of your tabacco in North Carolina this year and to take at least part credit for the wonderful price that you are receiving for this high-quality tobacco."

So much for the virtues of tobacco then. What about the virtues of what people do with it - i.e., smoking? Ah, yes, smoking. Well, you see, "the tobacco industry, the tobacco farmers, the federal government, all citizens want to have an accurate and enlightened education program and research program to make the smoking of tabacco even more safe than it is today. "

Even more safe than it is today?

The italics are ours. And, just in case an idle listener might have inferred from this curious presidential formulation some high degree of physical safety in the smoking of tobacco, the good old American Medical Association - bless its cranky, conservative heart - came forward almost simultaneously with the gloomy results of a 14-year, $15-million research project one of its committees had conducted with tobacco-industry funds. The AMA committee said that the "bulk" of its research had supported the view that "cigarette smoking plays an important role in the development of chronic, obstructive pulmonary diseases and constitutes a grave danger to individuals with pre-existing diseases of the coronary arteries." The report "makes it pretty clear," the committee's secretary, Dr. Ira Singer, was quoted as saying, "that anybody with heart trouble better not smoke."

Now let us, in the best tradition of politicians everywhere, say what we are not saying.We are not saying that tobacco farmers or those working in the industry as a whole should be punished for purveying what is clearly the stuff of an extremely hazardous and addictive habit. We are not saying that smoking should be banned.We are not saying that Jimmy Carter should be insensitive to the claims of a political constituency that happens to grow and peddle the pernicious weed. What we are saying is that the president, with a little restraint, could have done himself (and possibly also some wavering would-be smokers) some good.

Presumably it was meant to be politically clever to make a big deal of a tobacco warehouse like that, complete with little japes about the HEW anti-smoking campaign. But that, in our view, is precisely what it was: politically clever, without being politically wise. What could Mr. Carter have picked up in North Carolina that he will not dissipate nationally with those who see once again a president seeming to straddle a single issue? The effort to reconcile the HEW program and medical concerns with what he was saying in North Carolina was purest and most transparent sophistry. And to extent that anyone took the president's effusions about smoking seriously, these may actually have done harm to health. Certainly it did not constitute much of a statment for a president to make.

Mr. Carter didn't need to say any of it, and that is the point. There were ways and ways of seeking peace with North Carolina without making that egregious warehouse tour or those egregious comments. Some things simply cannot be reconciled in politics, and we think the president will be better off the minute he stops trying.