To the last play-acting moment before he meets with Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan postures as the model Soviet hater. "Make no mistake," he says, "the Soviets are and will continue to be our adversaries, the adversaries indeed of all who believe in human liberty."

The month before that late November jab, Reagan pined for the 1950s: "There was once a Congress in which they had a committee that would investigate even one of their own members if it was believed that that person had communist leanings. Well, they've done away with those committees. That shows the success of what the Soviets were able to do in this country."

It's always been presumed that Reagan is not his platitudes. The diplomacy of insults was how he kept noisemaking faith with his endeared belligerents on the far right. What's at stake now in the coming meeting with Gorbachev -- when nukes may actually be unscrewed for the first time -- is whether Reagan will truly come of age and height.

The Soviet leader has shown that he can. His new American-published "Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World" has enough candor and reflectiveness to show that this is not another empty shell of a Soviet leader. He writes, on that subject, of the pack of "stone-faced sphinxes" who came before him, men who were lost to "grandiloquent twaddle ... unwarranted splendor, abstract slogans, and recurrences of pompous ostentation."

That's an accurate fix on Ronald Reagan and other world leaders. Americans who read "Perestroika" -- "restructuring" -- can judge for themselves whether or not Gorbachev is putting out genuine feelers for reconciliation with the West. He writes, in words that echo Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on economics, that capitalism and socialism have strengths and weaknesses that can coexist "within a framework of peaceful competition which necessarily envisages cooperation."

That cooperation, plus a chance for the public to have a closer sizing up of Gorbachev, would have been enhanced had the Soviet leader been seen fit to address Congress. He is fit by the standards that ought to prevail: a liberality willing to open the nation's cataracted eyes, blinded too long to anything communist.

The refusal to let Gorbachev address Congress means that another enemy takes the podium -- reactionary cant. What, it asks fearfully, if we allow the Red Menace to speak and the public sees that he isn't menacing? What if he doesn't bang his inherited Khrushchev shoe or bellow that he has come to bury us? What if the man from the evil empire says nothing evil?

It means that the country will be forced to think through whether or not it wants to continue in its primitive nationalism that America is God's chosen and Russia the Devil's handiwork. Keeping Gorbachev from speaking before Congress reveals insecurity that no bombs can protect. We'll sign an INF treaty but we won't disarm our silos of irrational distrust.

Gorbachev is sophisticated enough to understand that the United States is still trapped in what he correctly calls a "blinding anti-Sovietism and anti-communism." It's our Potemkin village; we look at it and admire a fake beauty.

Aside from signing a treaty that will see the Soviets dismantling three weapons to our one, Gorbachev presents himself as an economic reformer. Instead of trading insults, he would trade goods. A fair number of American companies have been dealing with the Soviet Union as a market, not an enemy. The potential for economic expansion is as vast as Russia's geography. The Wall Street Journal reports that under Gorbachev, certain Soviet organizations are now allowed to involve themselves in business deals based on foreign ownership.

On the NBC interview last Monday, economic reform was mentioned. "There are so many problems in the world," Gorbachev exclaimed. "Can't we join our efforts ... pool the enormous might of our countries' economic, intellectual capacities to resolve all these problems?"

That's the question of the century. Until now, both the Soviet Union and the United States have defiled humanity by refusing to seek an answer. With 50,000 annihilation bombs between them, the two governments are gravediggers preparing the global cemetery. The pending spectacle of the Gorbachev-Reagan meeting is a moment to rest on the shovels and ask if there isn't another way.

In "The Poems of Doctor Zhivago," Boris Pasternak writes of putting away the sword as the way to peace. He concludes, "Let the future come."

1987, Washington Post Writers Group