SOVIET leader Mikhail Gorbachev is coming to Washington next week; his summit meeting with President Reagan will dominate the world's headlines for days, even though we know what the agenda is and what the outcome will be. The meeting will dominate the headlines because somewhere around 10,000 American and foreign journalists will be covering the meeting. All of them will be obliged to write or broadcast about it each day. Their employers, who have spent a great deal of money assigning their newsmen to the story, will justify the cost by running the stuff.
This hungry pool of restless media talent is an opportunity public relations men dream of. The Soviet team has been off to a canny start, dribbling out excerpts from Mr. Gorbachev's new book, ``Perestroika.'' Gorbachev is supposed to have written it during his reclusive summer vacation; its release on the eve of the summit is hardly accidental. Ads for it picture him as an innovative master of diplomacy and global strategy.
Gorbachev signed up for a one-hour special with NBC, and many more interviews are planned by him and the Soviet experts imported to capture ink and air time in the United States. Soviet press relations are much improved these days; spokesmen who speak fluent English and are masters of American idioms are accessible and swift to comment and react.
Gorbachev's personable wife, Raisa, another guaranteed headline-getter, will be with him. Much of the American press is fascinated by her and the contrast to wives of earlier Soviet leaders who were generally kept in the background. Advance sympathy may have been generated for Mrs. Gorbachev in the US by an interestingly timed story suggesting that her outgoing character is a negative for her in Soviet society. Some cynics may be pardoned for suspecting that readily quotable Soviet sources may have intended that Americans take the buffeted Raisa to their hearts.
Though both Soviet and American sides will be seeking to exploit the summit opportunity for propaganda gain, there is a genuine and constructive purpose. Reagan and Gorbachev are a kind of Odd Couple - Reagan, the die-hard anticommunist who thinks there is a deal to be cut with the Red Devil, and Gorbachev, the hardened communist veteran who thinks he can use the West to make his sputtering economic machine whir more smoothly.
The task for the two leaders is to forget the media hoopla and the fanciful talk of d'etente, and to concentrate on a deal of mutual interest between two societies whose values and systems of government and economics remain antithetical.
The agreement on intermediate-range nuclear missiles is worthwhile. It will start a modest rollback in nuclear military power. If the leaders move on to reductions in the two countries' long-range strategic missiles, that would be even more significant.
But Ronald Reagan has not lost his intrinsic suspicion of communist regimes. Nor has Mikhail Gorbachev embraced capitalism. The arms reduction treaty is good for both sides, because it lessens tensions. It is particularly good for Gorbachev; it helps give him the breathing space he needs to revive his faltering economy. Perhaps it is significant that instead of going to see Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck during his spare time, Gorbachev will spend a couple of hours wooing 60 top American businessmen. He wants Western technology - but to build a stronger communist society.
It is still a communist society that occupies Afghanistan, harasses Soviet Jews, tries to steal US technology it cannot buy, and threads the new US Embassy in Moscow with eavesdropping devices.