What you need for Russians is December, thin, grim light and trees with no leaves, the sort of weather you remember in black-and-white.

Instead, we got kind King Kodachrome grinning down on us yesterday during the most beautiful day of the year, the kind of day you think of when you think of the Fourth of July in Grover's Corners, N.H., the kind of day when the whole world looks like a flag and it's hard to imagine the adamantine grittiness of Communism, except when the Soviet limousines, the Zils, went past.

The Zils hauled their own December around with them, a moving tunnel of gloom grumbling past the Executive Office Building, carrying Mikhail Gorbachev to the White House, a Gorbachev who waved from deep inside the smoked-glass twilight like something out of the past, very black-and-white.

"There he goes," people said.

In 1987, people flailed and screamed when he went by, that amazing hormone scream that rock stars get, but yesterday Washingtonians just stood there saying "There he goes" and waving at him just the way he waved at them, a neutral, official wave that looked like somebody reaching out to readjust a lampshade.

"Well, that was brief," said Kelly Spinks, who works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It was all so modest, so restrained. Was it the New England weather? Was it our WASP president? Certainly the dropcloth hanging over the south porch of the White House was a WASP touch, which is to say it was the sort of modesty and practicality that verges on tackiness but never quite gets there, like a threadbare tweed jacket.

"There was horror among all the networks to see that," said John Holliman of Cable News Network.

He was sitting on a plywood platform atop the Tinkertoy tackola of the pipe-scaffold media platforms on the Ellipse. Like all the other network reporters, he'd envisioned himself framed against the ageless classical columns of the White House. He hadn't figured that the White House would start patching up that very spot right before the summit. Now he'd have to share the screen with a painters dropcloth hung over scaffolding.

"The White House refused to take it down," he said.

What to do?

"We've got Clement Conger, the former curator of the White House, coming on to explain it all," he said.

The future of mankind hangs in the balance, and television was explaining a dropcloth.

But what else could they do? Larry Moore, anchorman of KMBC-9, had a pivot-and-point move ready for the folks back in Kansas City, Mo., when he did his noon stand-up.

"Soviet President Gorbachev arrived at the White House," he began, and then, twisting around to point out the dropcloth, he added, "where they are still painting ..."

How could the White House do this to them?

"Not only does it make a bad shot, but it shows the White House like this around the world," said Eileen Cleary, a vice president at Potomac TV, which helped furnish the lights, technicians, cameras, uplinks, downlinks, dishes, feeds, monitors, the endless electronic paraphernalia down on the Ellipse.

"We had a letter-writing campaign to get the tarpaulin taken down, but it's still there," said Maria Scarvalone of the European Broadcast Union. Oh, well. "The cameramen said they used it to get their white balance."

Would this have happened during the television presidency of Ronald Reagan? Jimmy Carter could get tacky, but it was part of his governance by symbolism, and he always did it on purpose -- carrying his own clothing bag, that kind of thing. The WASP touch is never to look like you did anything on purpose, which is George and Barbara Bush all over.


For the lunch at the embassy, the Soviets brought in Gregory Peck, Jesse Jackson, Jane Fonda. Stars! For the state dinner at the White House, the Bushes brought in Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. The Soviets had the Rev. Robert "Crystal Cathedral" Schuller, the Bushes stayed with plain old Rev. Billy Graham. The charisma level seemed to average out somewhere around the level of CIA Director William Webster. (You wonder: To a Russian, is the well-combed gravitas of William Webster distinguishable from the well-combed gravitas of Elliot Richardson? Let's see, one ran the FBI, the other was attorney general, but which one did the Law of the Sea Treaty?)

On the way back from his afternoon meeting at the White House, Gorbachev got out of his limousine on Pennsylvania Avenue. The wire services noted that these walks have become a trademark.

No panic, no astonishment. Some cheering, some applause.

Modesty. Washington as WASP heaven. Welcome, Gorby, to a lovely day in Grover's Corners, N.H.