At 9 a.m., while officials waited on a glorious spring day for the presidential welcoming ceremonies to begin, a bicycle messenger pumped swiftly past the front of the White House, glanced at the summit scene and called out, "Good morning, Washington." He might just as well have shouted "Wake up, Washington," for at that moment the capital city seemed singularly disinterested in the event about to take place.

Lafayette Park, the "people's park" that on other occasions acts as a magnet to great crowds, was nearly deserted. A few homeless people lay on the grass; the benches were almost empty. No throngs were making their way to the area and the surrounding streets and sidewalks were strikingly different from 1987 when Mikhail Gorbachev first came here. Then, crowds gathered early in winter weather as people massed five and six deep along the curbs to catch a glimpse of him. The city was astir with palpable excitement. Now, an air of what seemed almost indifference had settled over the city.

Across from the White House, placards and protesters were notable by their absence. The few there represented past causes and grievances more than current ones. A lone figure in combat fatigues stood silently by a sign that demanded accounting for "our POW/MIA" in Vietnam. Nearby, another man sat slumped by a sign that pronounced him to be the victim of a "CIA arrest." A few other solitary citizens bore mute testimony to old protests in the form of a "White House peace vigil" and a ban-the-bomb dissenter who, from his looks and the condition of his sign, appeared to be a remnant of the '60s.

By the time President Bush greeted Gorbachev on the White House South Lawn an hour later, a few scattered protest groups had posted themselves, but U.S. Park Police estimated that, at most, only about 150 people turned out.

Several explanations are possible for this tepid response to the Soviet leader and the obvious shift in public atmosphere in just three years. First is the superficial theory: that in welcoming Gorbachev now, Washington exhibits the Andy Warhol principle at work. Gorbachev has used up the allotted 15 minutes of television age fame. Now he's old hat and old news; the fickle public seeks something newer and more exciting.

The more interesting and substantial possibility suggests a deeper emotional public response. Three years ago, Gorbachev generated excitement and fired imagination because he embodied hope that the Cold War was ending. He held forth the tantalizing prospect of genuine world change.

To a degree unimaginable then, those hopes have been realized. In no small part because of Gorbachev's leadership, Eastern Europe has been freed, the Berlin Wall has crumbled, the Cold War has ended and the brightest prospects for peace in a half-century exist.

Yet, amid those extraordinary developments, events have overtaken Gorbachev. He seems trapped in the backwater of the times, a political figure battling for survival against increasingly formidable forces.

Americans understand this. For good reason, they view the Gorbachev visit with a certain wariness and uncertainty. They know that his personal story may well be nearing its close even if the happier ending he foretold eventually becomes reality.

But if Americans watched the splendid White House ceremonies yesterday, in which Bush more than rose to the occasion with a speech both elegant and straightforward, they also know something else. Gorbachev remains a compellingly visionary figure. He still possesses a rare capacity to articulate feelings that express the yearnings of countless millions. In speaking of how "the world around us has also changed beyond recognition" since his last visit, he addressed Bush and Americans by saying:

"Mr. President, this generation of people on Earth may witness the advent of an irreversible period of peace in the history of civilization. The walls which for years separated the peoples are collapsing. The trenches of the Cold War are disappearing. The fog of prejudice, mistrust and animosity is vanishing."

Moments later, he recalled how his recent meetings with Soviet citizens convinced him that "they all understand the importance of Soviet-U.S. relations." Then he added: "They look upon their improvement with hope that the tragedies of the 20th century, those horrible wars, will forever remain a thing of the past. I think that this is what the Americans want too."

Those words drew strong applause, which was fitting because Gorbachev had expressed the hope that lies behind this latest summit and transcends his personal fate.