THE Ilyushin 62-M airliner broke from the gray clouds over Geneva just before noon Monday, bringing the last of the important players into place. Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader for just eight months, had arrived, and the stage was now set for the first summit meeting between a United States President and a Soviet leader in six years.
This normally serene city on the shores of Lake Geneva has tried to take it all in stride. But even the normally imperturbable Swiss have been a bit nonplussed about the theatrics that accompany superpower summitry.
Practically the only thing about the summit that isn't tightly planned is the outcome. Virtually everything that can be choreographed in advance is. And most of the efforts of both sides are, not surprisingly, aimed at influencing public opinion.
The Soviet and American delegations -- and the estimated 3,500 journalists who have descended on Geneva -- are willing co-conspirators in this effort.
Both the US and the Soviets have set up a series of press briefings and produced their respective experts on a variety of issues ranging from arms control to human rights to regional conflicts.
One Soviet briefing resulted in verbal fireworks when Irina Grivnina, a former Soviet citizen who is an accredited journalist here with the Dutch news magazine Elseviers, asked pointed questions of Soviet officials. Kremlin spokesman Vladimir Lomeiko said that he had warned Soviet officials that such disruptions were planned, and abruptly halted his first scheduled briefing.
And the Swiss, meanwhile, provide security, try to keep a good-humored approach, and cheerfully collect the commerce that the summit has brought their way.
``Does this look like a $2 Coke to you?'' asked one incredulous American to another, after being charged that much for a bottle.
Still, it is not the high cost of electricity or hotel rooms that finds CBS anchorman Dan Rather in a poorly heated chicken-coop-like structure on top of the Hotel Metropole every night until after midnight. There is a six-hour time difference between New York and Geneva, and all the TV anchormen must keep such hours to do their programs live back in the US.
The television networks have spent hundreds of thousands of hours -- not to mention dollars -- to prepare for their coverage.
CBS chose the high ground in the ratings battle, securing a rooftop perch on the Metropole with a commanding view of Lake Geneva in the background. A glass-walled booth was built on the hotel roof so that cameras could capture the panorama behind Mr. Rather. But too much heat in the small enclosure would have caused the windows to fog up. So Rather, despite the winter chill at the midnight hour, originates the broadcast from his frigid, isolated perch with all the aplomb he can muster.
The same might be said for the woman in a fur coat walking down Geneva's Rue de Rh^one at the weekend. She was trying hard to ignore the noisy demonstrators parading in the street alongside her.
The Swiss authorities have banned any demonstrations during the summit itself, and soliders have orders to shoot to kill any demonstrators who disobey their orders to stop and desist. But this centuries-old democracy has a history of allowing free expression -- and a passion for order. So, it allowed demonstrators to parade -- one behind the other -- through downtown Geneva before the summit meeting actually got underway.
They were of virtually every nationality and political persuasion, from Afghans denouncing Mr. Gorbachev as a murderer to Germans with a mystical vision of a spiritual link that could be forged between Gorbachev and President Reagan that would make them forget the enmity between their countries.
But suddenly, someone started tossing bottles of paint at the demonstrators. ``My coat,'' the woman screamed, dashing sideways to avoid getting splattered.
When things quieted a bit, she moved back onto the sidewalk and immediately began lecturing both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators on the civic virtues of refraining from hurling paint bottles. This was, she yelled, after all, Geneva, where those sorts of things aren't done. And besides, she added, she had paid a lot for her coat.
One of those ruminating over this week's events will be none other than the Reagan's son, Ron. He is accredited as a journalist for an American magazine. He displayed some of the good-natured patience of his father when, cornered on the street for an autograph, he laboriously copied two French names onto a postcard, then affixed his autograph and his warmest greetings to them.
Does he expect special access to the behind-the-scene maneuverings? Hardly. He was even barred from greeting his own father and mother when they stepped off Air Force One.
He was not, it seems, in the ``pool.''
A ``pool'' is a group of reporters whose names are drawn at random, who gain admission to such events as airport arrivals and meetings, and in return for the honor must dutifully report back to their colleagues what they see and hear.
Woe unto anyone who tries to ``crash'' a pool, or, worse, tries to secret away snippets from his colleagues. He or she risks enormous verbal abuse or -- worse -- the threat of ostracism from future pools. And that would make any reporter feel like a -- uh -- fish out of water.
Speaking of water, the city of Geneva has turned on its enormous fountain -- the Jet D'Eau -- even though it usually is turned off at the end of summer. The reason? To provide a backdrop for all those picturesque TV shots of the city.
The city has also dutifully left various monuments and other fountains illuminated until 2 a.m. so that the city will have a colorful look about it when the evening news airs back in the US.