In this town, we know the meaning of the term "historic." As applied to the summit, it means that traffic will be all tied up. In my case, it means that a special security sticker has been applied to my car so that I may park in a public garage across the street from my office. Sticker or no sticker, the street has been narrowed by barricades, and traffic is a mess. "Historic" means I'm walking.

This is a Bill Mauldin view of history, specifically the Willie and Joe characters he created for the Stars and Stripes newspaper during World War II. The two disheveled infantrymen were consummate cynics. When the top brass talked of troops "flushed with victory," Mauldin showed us weary dogfaces. In one cartoon, a general ceremoniously arrives at some outpost, and in the foreground a mess sergeant says something like, "Big deal, another darn mouth to feed."

The Willie and Joe perspective has its uses. At its heart is discontinuity, what the dictionary defines as the lack of logical sequence. On the one hand, we have the great ceremony of the summit. On the other hand, my morning paper tells me that a federal judge has declared Michigan's Medicaid program invalid. It cannot or it does not pay hospitals enough to treat poor people.

The previous day's newspaper was no better. It reported that unexpected increases in food prices had forced some states to cut back or eliminate food allotments to poor women and children. In Texas, the cereal allotment for children 1 to 2 years old has been reduced, and the state will drop 27,000 people from the program. California will cut back on fruit juices. Instead of expanding the program, as nutritionists and others had hoped, food allotments will be reduced.

Earlier this month, a similar sort of story made the papers: the federal government has run out of money for measles vaccine. What that means is that a disease once on the verge of eradication is making a comeback. Last year, 45 children died from measles; this year 40 kids have died in the first four months alone. Not enough money has been budgeted for the program. Not enough public health nurses serve the nation's poor children. As with too many other programs, the Reagan administration starved the one for childhood immunization. This was yet another example of getting government off our backs.

What made previous summits dramatic was the dramatic differences between the two superpowers. What makes this one banal is their similarities. Mikhail Gorbachev is the creature of his predecessors. They bequeathed him an inefficient and dilapidated economic system that simply may be beyond salvaging. He rules a nation that makes no ethnic, religious or nationalistic sense and has only remained unified, either by czars or by dictators, through the use of force. History is the monkey on Gorbachev's back.

But Bush, too, has a monkey on his back -- only he placed it there himself. It's the ideology he inherited from Ronald Reagan, and as a good Republican apparatchik, he has chosen to adopt it as his own. By political choice the United States now has a government that is a shadow of what it used to be. It is deeply in debt. It is underfunded. It can no longer provide basic services. In percentage terms, by far the largest increases in government expenditures have been for paying interest on the national debt.

To all but reactionaries, it goes without saying that government has an obligation -- a moral obligation -- to the poor, especially poor children. But here is a government that has permitted the death of poor kids from a childhood disease that we thought was a thing of the past. Here, too, is a government that has to cut back on cereal for poor kids and that, somehow, can't establish a medical system that provides the indigent with services that in either Western or Eastern Europe are taken for granted. Only in military terms, can the United States be called a superpower.

But military power is less and less meaningful. In advance of the summit, for instance, it was suggested that Gorbachev's problems with German reunification might be mollified by some sort of aid program. But how can a nation that is dipping into kids' cereal bowls offer that sort of aid? No, financial inducements will probably come from Germany. That, as the bank robber Willie Sutton said of banks, is where the money is.

In due course, any Willie and Joe perspective will be overwhelmed by the grand ceremony of a summit meeting and the substantive, and important, things accomplished. But inescapably the event seems more melancholy than triumphant, something like the reunion of old war buddies -- one overwhelmed by change, the other quite oblivious to it.