JAMES BAKER III is like a noted scholar who has to take over as president of the university to raise the money needed to keep his own department in business. He is, it seems, the indispensable man.
After four years as United States secretary of state, Mr. Baker has earned a reputation as an astute diplomat, even winning the grudging respect of State Department careerists who are always reluctant to bestow their trust on outsiders.
But to save the job he loves, it appears that Baker now needs to save the president who bestowed it.
Four years ago he relinquished his post as secretary of the Treasury to retrieve his friend George Bush from a 17-point deficit in the polls.
Apparently, he will now try again, under far more difficult circumstances.
Assuming that it will occur, Baker's imminent departure raises the prospect of a void in US foreign policymaking at a crucial time.
A variety of urgent issues, ranging from Yugoslavia to trade talks, needs the authority and expertise he has developed over the past four years. His influential voice on behalf of aid to the former Soviet Union could help spur a reluctant Congress to open its purse strings.
His loss could be most keenly felt in the Middle East where, under his constant prodding, peace talks between Arabs and Israelis finally appear to be getting down to serious business.
The peace process will survive. But Arabs and Israelis alike will feel the absence of a broker they have gradually come to trust.
As the rumors of Baker's imminent return to political life have made the rounds in Washington, pundits have been groping for analogies. To whom does one compare this Washington oddity who seems to operate with equal ease in the seemingly divergent worlds of striped-pants diplomacy and electoral politics?
Names like John McCloy and Averell Harriman come to mind. Architects of one of the most creative eras in American diplomacy, they were also respected political advisers to a series of postwar American presidents.
But such comparisons merely underscore the fact that James Baker is sui generis.
At home dispensing advice in the rarefied confines of the Oval Office, the man who has already managed two presidential campaigns also prospers in political back rooms.
State Department officials say Baker is not enthusiastic about having to dirty his hands again in electoral politics. After all, Israel's recent national elections have put him on the verge of pulling off a miracle that would be the diplomatic equivalent of engineering President Bush's reelection: securing a dramatic breakthrough in Middle East peace talks.
On the other hand, Baker may be stepping into a no-lose situation. With President Bush already nearly 30 points behind in the polls, no one will say it is Baker's fault if he is unable to rescue the campaign.
But if Baker does join the campaign and Bush does win in November, it is surely Baker who will get the credit. With Bush a lame duck, he could thus become the most important man in the Republican Party.
Whether Baker would attempt to translate such standing into his own campaign for the White House remains to be seen.
Short of being president, paradoxically, this shrewd diplomat could end up a modern Mark Hanna, the kingmaker of his own faltering party.