Out of the West: Will the elusive Pimpernel Jim pull it off again?

WASHINGTON - Pondering the presidential campaign this week, a half-forgotten verse began to haunt me:

We seek him here, we seek him there,

Those Frenchies seek him every where.

Is he in Heaven? - Is he in Hell?

That damned elusive Pimpernel.

Substitute the White House Press corps and the the former US Secretary of State and there you have it - the current minor mystery of the election season: where on earth is James Baker?

If the polls are to be believed, that emblem of America's ancien regime George Herbert Walker Bush is already all but trussed up in the tumbril carrying him towards political decapitation on 3 November. By common consent, the President's chances of avoiding such a fate depend on a single individual, his old friend Jim Baker, recalled to the White House exactly a month ago today. Mr Baker after all had done it before, in 1988; times are tougher this year, but the maestro surely could pull it off again. And some suspect the latter-day Pimpernel may yet be putting the final touches to a stunning rescue plan. Right now, though, he has, to all intents and purposes, vanished.

He gives no interviews and does not accompany the President to campaign engagements. The reporters who do have begun to use the disappearing act to liven up their pool reports for colleagues on the regular press plane.

'Baker came back and briefed your pool aboard Air Force One. Not]' read one on last week's Western swing by Mr Bush, couched in today's voguish California-speak.

Invisibility, of course, has done nothing to dent the mystique of Washington's smoothest operator in decades. He has been associated with many successes, but never have his fingerprints been found within a hundred miles of a disaster. And the pattern continues. Since Mr Baker took over, the President's campaign has acquired a modicum of purpose and commonsense.

Who was it who halted the counterproductive Republican rhetoric about family values? Jim Baker, naturally. Who despatched Mr Bush so swiftly to Florida after Hurricane Andrew? For the cognoscenti, the answer went without saying: Mr Baker.

But if his precise physical whereabouts are so hard to pin down, his spiritual whereabouts are not. The elusive Pimpernel of 1992 cannot be a happy man. He must in fact be enduring something pretty close to hell. Our hero likes to keep his hands clean. He never wanted to leave the State Department, and who could blame him?

Diplomacy with its measurable achievements is obviously far preferable to the rigours of an uphill re-election campaign, with not the slightest guarantee of ultimate victory. His relationship with the President is a study in mutual dependency. It may be argued that his tactical acumen secured Mr Bush the presidency.

Equally, without George Bush James Baker would not have been Secretary of State. So when the summons came in August, he had no choice but to comply.

At this point, all mystery disappears. With consummate skill Mr Baker is making the best of a bad job. The handful of close personal aides he took with him have long since been putting the word around that the mess they discovered was even worse than they imagined (subtext: 'Our man is not superhuman; if Bush loses, it won't be Jim's fault').

Hence, if the campaign continues to flounder, the Baker vanishing act will continue. Seek him here, seek him there - the next confirmed sighting will probably be back in his law practice in his native Houston next January, as if the distasteful postscript to his Washington career had never happened at all.

But if his master, against the odds, suddenly starts to look a winner? It is a safe bet that Pimpernel will break cover at last. Coolly and graciously, as is his wont, he will receive his plaudits from the talkshow pundits. And, who knows, even the reporters on Air Force One will be granted an audience. Jim Baker, in short, will have done it again.

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