You knew it had to happen: on the eve of the momentous summit talks, as the forces of godless communism -- to coin a phrase -- advanced upon our nation's Capital, Washington was viewing the whole thing as an assault not on our values but on our social pecking order. The hot questions were personal -- i.e., who got invited to which grand meal and who got to meet with whom. First things first, lovey. After that we can talk about Afghanistan. If there's time.

Has there ever been such an event in Washington? It seems to me to combine all the most peculiar features of an inaugural, a national political convention and a royal wedding. By last week a planeload of Soviet functionaries had been jetted in for the diplomatic festivities and were resting up from Aeroflot-lag in some of the most sybaritically luxurious hotels in the world. Working and social gatherings were being spontaneously set up all over town, talked about and horned in on if they could be. Political-convention angst -- that sinking certainty that there is someplace where everybody who is anybody is at the moment, and you're not there -- was epidemic.

The odd fact is that despite the surrealistic dimension, there is something to be gained from this whirl. I know that a lot of our conservative nannies and chaperones are worried sick that we will fall for "moral equivalence" -- be blinded by certain superficial likenesses between ourselves and our Soviet visitors, taken in by their blarnsky and seduced into thinking that our systems are morally indistinguishable. But they can relax. That the Soviets have become light-years more sophisticated in public-relations techniques and that they speak with a much more plausible voice in a way only accentuates the stark, stunning differences one ultimately slams into in these encounters.

What I mean is that when these people, not so very long ago, were in a kind of premodern political ice age, you did not really have to take them seriously except as to the quality and number of their guns. You did not have to argue. You did not have to think. It was very agreeable and, although internationally harrowing, intellectually restful. We didn't use to get what you could call press releases from the Soviets, or presentations that required a serious reading and response. We got instead, if we got anything at all, only texts of lumbering, preposterous speeches and transcripts of official gatherings that featured transparent lies about the Edenlike quality of their society and the depravities and deprivations of ours. The text was interspersed with parenthetical accounts of what was going on (unanimously) in the hall at the time: (all rise), (stormy applause) and so forth.

But over the past couple of dec-ades, and at an accelerated pace lately, they have really got the idea concerning image promotion, press manipulation, international photo-op and nonevent exploitation, spin control, ego massage and the rest of that odious package that plays so large a part in our normal life in Washington. They have sent us personable, quick-witted representatives who may even wear gray-flannel suits and regimental neckties and who know how to converse as distinct from harangue. Last week it was all easy quips -- Richard Perle jokes (followed by a but-seriously-folks-type cleanup: "We have good relations with Richard Perle"), even defection jokes, as a high Foreign Ministry official seeing some of us leading off one of their generals for an interview cracked: "Don't tell me. He's defected." Representatives of Izvestia and another publishing organization got into a brief, jocular contention over who got a particular quote from an American publisher, affecting intense competition for a "scoop."

These little byplays may not exactly crack you up, and for some they are the Devil's work -- seductive, misleading and above all inappropriate from the No. 1 adversary. But, again, I think there is something of value here. Those who expect palpable monsters and demons they wouldn't half mind blowing away can only profit from some real-life encounters with the creatures of their extravagant imaginings. And people who are tempted by the illusion that the conflict between us and the Soviets is all a product of misunderstanding, and that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between us way down deep, will have greatly improved understanding when they come to the infuriating, wholly unsympathetic and even frightening part of the conversation -- which is all but inevitable when most of the serious issues between us come up.

The temptation some have felt to say, "Ah, you're a journalist, and I'm a journalist -- we have so much in common," gets pretty attenuated when the chitchat about common technical newsroom experience yields to talk about what journalists do and for whom they work. I know I'm not the only one in town who has heard my Soviet "counterparts" argue the truth of Gorbachev's grotesque assertion that this country is inspiring the Soviet emigration as a plot to steal their scientific talent, or that (they print this) there is evidence that we have developed an "ethnic weapon" aimed at blacks and that we invented and propagated the AIDS virus. Precisely because they do not resemble aliens from another world or Peter Sellers Russians, and precisely because there are human aspects in which you can connect, even warmly and with humor, such moments are the more chilling and instructive.

At one point last week I found myself listening to an explanation of Boris Yeltsin's unpublished speech to the party gathering and his subsequent dramatic demotion. The events were put in a light intended to demonstrate that they were neither arbitrary nor unreasonable nor evidence of an iron exercise of power, but rather the outcome of some kind of reasonable political process. Every time the term "party cadres" was used I could only think of the 12-candidate American political debate the night before and reflect on how "party" in this country is so innocent of ideology or control of any kind, how its officials have become but referees and impresarios, how its candidates have become political beggars, hustlers, orphans and entrepreneurs.

I doubt our visitors can understand any of this any better than we can imagine ourselves living in the world of Izvestia and Yeltsin. Not all the regimental neckties in the world can affect that, nor all the defector jokes. On the contrary, they cast it in sharp relief.