A ratings race between the leaders of the superpowers may well be a better idea than an arms race, but it is not a new idea. White House spokesman Larry Speakes misspeaks when he says that unreciprocated Soviet access to the American news media, exemplified by Mikhail Gorbachev's interview with Time magazine, is "something that is relatively new."

In fact, Soviet protectionism vs. American free trade in high-level public relations has been a source of presidential frustration for more than a quarter-century.

In June 1957, President Eisenhower reacted testily when Nikita Khrushchev materialized in America's living rooms to vaunt the advantages of the Soviet system in an hour-long Face-the- Nation interview, filmed in his Kremlin office. Eisenhower stated that Khrushchev "could do that because this is a free country," and CBS had done it "to improve its own commercial standing." If the Soviets cared to reciprocate the invitation, he said, "I can tell you that somebody in this government would be glad to accept."

Instead, Khrushchev toured the United States in 1959, getting saturation coverage of his speeches, news conferences and random remarks in transit. President Eisenhower was promised his chance during a scheduled visit to the Soviet Union in 1960, but that was cancelled after the breakup of the Paris summit over the episode of the U-2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy picked up the ball, and, early in 1962, sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to Moscow to negotiate a regular exchange of television appearances between himself and Khrushchev. It was agreed that each would film a speech in his office, have the translation dubbed over it and send it on to the other's capital, both speeches to be aired in both countries, uncensored and unedited.

The "debut" was scheduled for March 25, and President Kennedy had already begun drafting a speech, harking back to the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and throwing in a few Russian words, when the deal suddenly collapsed. A Kennedy aide, Theodore C. Sorenson, said the cancellation came in a private message from Khrushchev, offended at the American resumption of nuclear testing. Television executives recall that the administration ran into a problem with American networks, reluctant to become part of a governmental agreement by committing themselves in advance to carrying the Khrushchev speech.

Richard N. Salant, who was president of CBS News, says, "We were still smarting under the massive criticism of CBS for having carried the Khrushchev interview in 1957."

So it was that, presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy having struck out, it fell to President Nixon to give the first -- and so far only -- American presidential address on Soviet television. In May 1972, toward the end of a summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow, Nixon made a speech that epitomized the d,etente spirit of the time.

He told of having seen the diary of a 12- year-old girl named Tanya, a sort of Russian Anne Frank, the last of her family to die in the German siege of Leningrad. His words translated by the same Viktor Sukhodrev, who, 15 years earlier, had been the English voice of Khrushchev on CBS, Nixon said, "Let us do all we can to ensure that no other children will have to endure what Tanya did."

Brezhnev told Nixon that the speech brought tears to his eyes. William Safire, a not-easily- impressed member of the Nixon party, was impressed. He wrote later, "For a leader of one superpower to address another superpower's population was no small potatoes."

It was an oratorical triumph that the great communicator, Ronald Reagan, could -- and perhaps does -- envy. To win the hearts and minds of Americans, or even West Europeans, on television is one thing; talking directly to the quarter- billion people of the great adversary is the media ultimate. President Reagan has been seeking such an appearance for some time. The idea was offered as a challenge during a belligerent speech to the British Parliament in June 1982, whose themes were the decay of communism and the onward march of democracy. As part of the "competition of ideas and values," Reagan said, "I am prepared to offer President Brezhnev an opportunity to speak to the American people on our television if he will allow me the same opportunity with the Soviet people."

How President Reagan proposed to overcome the problem that Kennedy had faced of "delivering" the American television networks was not made clear. It remained academic, however, because the Kremlin ignored the challenge.

More recently the administration has tried a less aggressive approach. In January, Charles Z. Wick, director of the U.S. Information Agency, proposed, in a letter to Leonid Zamyatin, a spokesman for the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, that "to further understanding," Soviet television should "carry an address by one of our top leaders, which would be reciprocated on American television by one of your top leaders."

Wick cited the Nixon address in 1972 and a Brezhnev speech on television in 1973, which were not strictly precedents because they occurred during official visits. Speakes says that the proposal has "gone not only unanswered, but unacknowledged." Georgi Arbatov, the Kremlin's chief America watcher, says President Reagan may be overestimating his potential appeal to the Soviet public.

The administration would be well advised not to hold its breath waiting to find out how Reagan would make it on Soviet television. The Kremlin has no reason to be dissatisfied with a situation in which, without reciprocation, Gorbachev can get all the American exposure he wants.

Beyond that, Soviet television has no commercial compulsion to raise its ratings and has no tradition of robust contention, such as the American presidential debates. It is one thing to open the airwaves to a d,etente-minded Nixon and another to offer a forum to a politician who, for all the Soviet leaders know, might use the opportunity to talk to Soviet citizens about the "evil empire" they inhabit.

One can understand Reagan's sense of frustration about the tactical advantages of totalitarianism, but it looks as though Nixon will be able to savor for a while longer the uniqueness of being an American presidential star on Soviet television.