Perceptive fellow that he is, James A. Baker III may chuckle a bit as he sadly gives up his dream job of Secretary of State to direct President Bush's beleaguered bid for re-election.
Triumphant conservatives in Houston, veering rightward in advance of next week's Republican National Convention, find themselves exulting in a rescue operation by a man they love to hate. Mr. Baker is the ultimate internationalist, the pragmatic moderate, the living antithesis of the fundamentalism and isolationism preached by GOP troglodytes. Yet when the party's need is great enough, even the Republican right will tolerate Jim Baker.
Amusing as this contradiction might be, it can hardly match the crocodile tears being shed by Democrats at Mr. Baker's departure from Foggy Bottom. Clinton & Co. would be only too happy to send Mr. Baker packing next January, no matter what crises are erupting on the world scene. But at this juncture, they decry his descent from statesmanship, finding in him qualities that hardly jibe with their foreign policy criticisms.
Well, these Democratic leaders needn't worry. Mr. Baker ran the State Department with four close aides he is taking to the White House. And while he will be somewhat preoccupied with the shambles that is the Bush campaign, you can be sure he will be in close touch with his former deputy, acting Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.
"We must attend to the connections between domestic and foreign policy, and between economic and security policy," Mr. Bush said, thus defining Mr. Baker's new job in almost presidential terms.
Having proved his skills as a presidential campaign manager, White House chief of staff and Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan-Bush era, Mr. Baker was nevertheless considered a novice at foreign policy when he took over the State Department in 1989. As the world pivoted during his tenure, with the Soviet Union imploding, Eastern Europe breaking free, Germany reuniting, South Africa abandoning apartheid, Mexico emerging from the Third World, Central American wars winding down, Persian Gulf hostilities flaring up, Yugoslavia disintegrating in ethnic conflict, Arabs and Jews negotiating at last face to face, Mr. Baker was always the imperturbable man in charge.
He and his administration made some big mistakes -- in coddling Saddam Hussein, in clinging too long to doomed Soviet and Yugoslav structures, in mismanaging relations with Japan. But history should give him good marks for backing the unification of Germany within NATO, for avoiding provocation when the Kremlin's empire was breaking up, for concluding arms control treaties and for questing doggedly for a Middle East peace.
Whether Mr. Baker can save his old friend George Bush from defeat is an open question. But in reluctantly taking on this uphill job, Mr. Baker may be performing a service to his party that in time could justify its presidential nomination in 1996. The GOP could do a lot worse.