LIKE its predecessors, next week's summit is prompting a new wave of commentary on the style and personality of the Soviet leader. After going ``one on one'' with Mikhail Gorbachev in a special 90-minute interview, NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw gushed about the Russian's intellectual prowess and verbal facileness. ``If you ever want to give up this job,'' Mr. Brokaw says he told Mr. Gorbachev, ``you could come to the United States and make a million dollars a year as a courtroom litigator.'' He might make even more as a TV anchorman. We can be sure that every action, every utterance of Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev, will be scrutinized, to the end of declaring one man or the other the winner of an epic summit battle for supremacy in public relations.
It's all good clean fun - up to a point. That point comes when the personality-centered hype begins to obscure the fact that the only thing about the summit that matters is what it contributes to the long-term relationship, military and otherwise, of the United States and the Soviet Union. For Americans the important questions are not how well Gorbachev handles television interviews or even what he is really like as a person, but rather what the USSR is like politically and militarily and what this requires of American policy.
Fortunately, the general public doesn't seem to have much difficulty keeping its mind focused on the issues of lasting import. When asked what they think of Gorbachev personally, large majorities say they find him more attractive than previous Soviet leaders and someone who brings to his country a genuinely new leadership style. But when the polls probe further, they show that the public wants US policy to respond to more enduring characteristics of the USSR and to reflect enduring US interests. The public plainly doesn't see reason to revise its basic conclusions about what policies are required.
The key ingredient in Americans' views of the USSR is an intense commitment to individual freedom.
The USSR is seen as a system that denies individual liberty, and this, not some abstract fear of communism, accounts for the public's persisting opposition to it.
If the Soviet leaders will not honor individual liberty, how can they be trusted? This basic distrust of what is obviously a formidable military power has brought Americans to a number of policy commitments - including that to a strong national defense. Even now, a majority opposes cuts in spending on military and defense programs.
The other side of the public's thinking about US-Soviet relations involves recognition that the two countries can't avoid dealing with each other, and a strong insistence, made to American leaders, that these dealings be as peaceable as possible. This latter perspective explains why Americans consistently express overwhelming support for negotiations including, especially, summit meetings, and for the ideal of mutual agreements between the two countries.
The two sides of the public's thinking - its reasoned distrust of the USSR and its reasoned commitment to the pursuit of peaceful relations - must coexist in a state of considerable tension. This tension has surfaced again around the issue of the US-Soviet agreement to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. As a symbol of the effort Americans clearly want made to reduce tensions and lessen the chances of war between the superpowers, the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty is warmly applauded. Recent polls have shown something between 60 and 70 percent of the public in favor of the proposed treaty. Even here, though, the fact that 20 to 30 percent say they are opposed to such an agreement negotiated by a conservative Republican administration and backed by most leading Democrats attests to a high level of distrust.
Other questions tap the distrust more fully. For example, a September New York Times/CBS News survey found 61 percent having the opinion that the USSR would ``cheat'' on the INF agreement, only 27 percent believing it ``would live up to'' the treaty. Last May an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey recorded 42 percent as more worried about electing a president ``who might not do enough in working for arms control with the Russians,'' compared with 51 percent more worried about having a president ``who might be too eager'' for an agreement.
The tensions and ambivalence that inhere in Americans' thinking on policy toward the USSR are fundamental. They deserve to be addressed soberly through discussions that explicate how the contending goals and perspectives are best reconciled - not lost in the sea of vacuous references to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit as a personality contest.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.