THE PEOPLE AT the Dulies Airport TWA counter were being very helpful. We were reporters, we told them, and we were looking for an international passenger named Vladimir Bukovsky. There were two women and one man behind the counter, and one of them, a woman, asked us to spell the name. The first time she got it wrong, but the second time she wrote it down on a piece of paper and punched the letters into the computer. She paused after the last letter and then her eyes went wide.

"Yes, we have him," she said. She motioned her colleagues over to the screen and they, too looked. There was apparently quite a bit on Bukovsky and she started reading it - "Attention D.C., ticket agent. Should passenger . . . " Then she stopped, indicating she would read no more outloud. She looked at the screen, punched some keys with the blunt side of her pen and asked, "Do you want me to read his history?"

You had to smile at that one. You had to wonder if the TWA computer said the Vladimir Bukovsky had spent 12 years of his life in Russian prisons and mental hospitals. You had to wonder if it said that he had been exchanged by the Russians for the former head of the Chiliean Communits Party, and that, at the time, he was under a seven-year sentence.

You had to wonder if the computer made any mention of something called "the rollup." It is used in the Soviet mental hospitals. You put a person in wet canvas and then roll him up from head to foot. As the canvas dries, it shrinks, causing excrutiating pain.

Vladimir Bukovsky was a Soviet dissident.

By now the computer had spoken. We had missed Bukovsky. Too bad. I had a message to give him, but I also wanted to see him - see what he looked like and see whether it was possible to see the courage that is within him. He became a dissident when he was 16. He was incarcerated in 1963, 1965 and 1967. The last time, he served three years and when he got out he opened his big mouth again. He called in Western correspondents and told them what life was like in a mental hospital. For that, he was incarcerated again.

I've seen one other man like Bukovsky. He was an old man, a Czech, and he talked one night after dinner at which he was the guest of honor. He was very matter of fact. He said he had spent World War II in a German concentration camp and then joined the Communist government after the war. Then he was purged by Stalin and went back to a concentration camp. Then came freedom under the short-lived Dubcek regime. Then he had to flee the Russians once more. It was 1969 when I met film and he said he would go if he could. He said he was unafraid.

I write about this now because there seems to be some question about whether Jimmy Carter is doing the right thing in reminding the Russians now and again that dissident is not quite the same thing as murder by ax. The ghost of Henry Kissinger still stalks Washington and people wonder if you should stand up the Russians and tell them, politely of course, that it is not nice to torture people and not nice to arrest them for speaking their mind and not polite to exile them from the country they love.

I am not an expert on foreign policy. Mostly, I know what I read in the papers, and what I learned when Kissinger was in office was that you must not speak of the dissidents in public. You must not embarress the Russians and you could not, either, say anything to people like Iranians who do some torturing of their own. So Solzhenitsyn was shunned by the White House. And when William Simon went on a trip abroad he was told to shut up when he brought up the subject of political prisoners. All this made me sick.

There are things I do not know about foreign policy. Maybe things are more complicated than I think. Maybe if you tell the Russians they should be nice to people they will start a war or something. But there are things I do know. I know I feel better as an American when Jimmy Carter tells the Russians that this country does not like the way they push people around. I like that, I like my country to stand for something.

And I know something else. I know that a man like Bukovsky represents something called the human spirit - how in a man of courage it can not be broken. I am glad he is here and glad that he will meet with Vice President Mondale and glad that this country no longer turns it back on men like him. So I went down to Dulles Airport last Friday to meet him and see what he looked like. I'm sorry I missed him I wanted to tell him something.

Welcome to Washington.