That Washington has been awash in cynicism over the summit should come as no surprise. For weeks, there seems to have been more concern over the public relations aspect of the meeting in Geneva than with the substance, with stage setting and maneuvering for public position than with trying to fashion a better climate for negotiations. And certainly the record of the Reagan administration in dealing with the Soviets to date has not been encouraging.

This, after all, is the American leader who opened his first presidential news conference by stating that the Soviets would lie and cheat to accomplish their end; who went before a meeting of evangelicals and pronounced the Soviets the focus of evil in the world; who addressed Parliament in London and predicted that the Soviet system would end up on the ash heap of history; who chose to have no dealings with the Soviet leaders and waited until well into his second presidential year to make even the first gesture toward them; who embarked on a massive and costly arms buildup with the prospect of the greatest expenditures and potentially most dangerous weapons experimentation ("Star Wars") yet to come, and whose public utterances repeatedly have breathed hostility and contempt for the Soviet system.

Still, this is no occasion for post-mortems about missed opportunities. It is a time for modest hope that face-to-face meetings of the U.S. and Soviet leaders will mark the beginning of a more practical, and thus positive, relationship in each side's mutual interest. As Clark M. Clifford remarked the other day, in his customarily trenchant fashion:

"Ultimately, the major responsibility and goal of an American president in this period of our country's history is to find some way to get on with the Soviet Union. Anybody can quarrel with them, anybody can denigrate them, anybody can abuse them publicly. The job is to find a way to get along. Isn't it unfortunate that five long years have gone by before these two leaders of those countries will sit down."

Clifford is one of those people in Washington who puts the lie to the stereotypes about major figures here -- the notion that the capital is a pit filled with ideologically warring combatants, all of whom fall into neatly defined groups of hawks or doves, cold warriors or nervous nellies, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. The reality is almost always otherwise. They are Americans first, and with rare exception put interests of country ahead of personal and political considerations. No one fits that description better than Clifford, who has been senior adviser to Democratic presidents beginning with Harry S Truman and served as Lyndon B. Johnson's secretary of defense during the most divisive phase of the Vietnam war.

Stripping all else aside, the summit is about one thing: the arms race in the nuclear age. On this, Clifford's comments are arresting.

"Whenever I begin to think and talk about this," he said, "I think about a haunting comment that Winston Churchill made. One time, years ago, he asked how many nuclear weapons the Soviet Union had and how many weapons the United States had. He was told maybe five or six hundred apiece. He said, 'What are they doing about it?' He was told they're building more every day.

"Churchill said: 'All they're going to do is make the rubble bounce.' And I can't forget it. That's all we're going to do. We've got twice -- three times, four times -- as many nuclear weapons as we need. We could destroy each other with one-fourth of what we have and yet we go through this incredibly insane process of continuing to build them. I think a distinct disservice has been rendered to our country in this respect. I speak about this because it's my country, too, and I think we've gone in the wrong direction in that regard."

He went on to say:

"Nobody's more conscious of our problems with the Russians than I. I've lived with them for 40 years. I know all about them. It's very difficult to get along with them. But you don't enter into an important negotiation with your union by publicly coming out and saying that the union leaders lie and steal and they're a focus of evil. You may believe all that but ultimately you've got to reach agreement with them, and the whole approach to the summit has been one of finding means possibly of vilification of the Soviets. The timing of a report several days ago that the Soviets have consistently violated all of the agreements, for instance. If your facts show that, I think I'd hold that up a little while. What you'd like to do is come back with something . . . .

"It is my belief, and I've worked with the Soviets all these years, that the Soviets sincerely want arms control. They would like very much to cut back on what they have. They entered into SALT I, they entered into the ABM agreement which I think is even more valuable than SALT I and prevented us from spending hundreds of billions of dollars; and it has them, too. We reached agreement on SALT II and then that got caught up in the political fracas here in this country. To me, it would be an enormous forward step to cut back. It's very expensive to keep all these weapons, and after all these years we're still making them. We make them every day. And so do the Soviets make them every day."

Which is why this summit, for all the hostility and fumbling and stage managing that preceded it on both sides, touches on simply the most important issue in the world. Merely meeting will not end the arms race. Failing to meet and prepare the way for serious arms negotiations later will bring closer to reality Churchill's grim metaphor. If there is another alternative to keep the rubble from bouncing, it has not yet been found.