It was neither the piercing blasts of the Israeli air raid sirens broadcast around the world nor the sight of Iraqi Scud missiles exploding in Tel Aviv that ultimately gave pause to the friends and colleagues of Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Rather, it was the newspaper photo of him surveying the bombed-out rubble, supporting his portly frame with a cane. And still later, the image of him sitting at Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's elbow as he tried to persuade the Israelis not to retaliate, looking tired and overweight, a cigarette in one hand and an asthma inhaler in the other.

He is too polite to call it hogwash, but that is what the number two man at the State Department is suggesting this blustery afternoon, when questions are raised about his smoking, his breathing, his bum knee, his muscular disorder and his weight. "What are you writing for -- some medical magazine?" he asks with his characteristic quick comeback.

These days he has been fighting a wicked flu since he returned to Foggy Bottom from his delicate mission. But Eagleburger, 30-year veteran of diplomatic life, longtime soul mate and sidekick of Henry Kissinger, a politico who has weathered Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Vietnam and Lebanon, casually scoffs at the notion that an illness, any illness, would bring him down.

"I admit hobbling around on a cane doesn't necessarily make me look like Terpsichore," he says, referring to the Greek muse of dance, "but it wasn't a problem. The only time the knee really bothered me was when we went out with the Patriot people, and pulling your leg in and out of mud with a bad knee can be a problem.

"And by the way, I do not have emphysema," he says, obviously trying to correct a popular misconception. "It's asthma and I've had that since I was 2."

Flu aside, the man whose rumpled physique has been likened to that of a bartender is looking natty in his gray pin stripes this day. It's true, he concedes, he has been smoking nearly three packs a day for years. And it is also true that at 60 his weight has had more ups and downs than the Rockies, and that his knee is shot and he suffers from myasthenia gravis, a disease that causes muscle fatigue. But none of the above has ever seemed to affect his diplomatic career, or the million dollars-plus he reportedly earned annually as Henry Kissinger's partner between '84 and '88.

But it is also true that, in the diplomatic category of high stress, this past month would have taken its physical toll on Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Let's just say," offers Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), a charter member of Eagleburger's Capitol Hill fan club, "I wouldn't want to sell him life insurance right now."

Eagleburger was, students of the Middle East maintain, the only real choice George Bush had for the most sensitive diplomatic mission of this war to date: to repair a fragile relationship while convincing Israel that any retaliatory strike on its part against Iraq would produce a broader regional conflict. Secretary of State James Baker's presence in Israel would have created too much of a media circus, and few, if any, other senior officials at State have the diplomatic stature or historic sensitivity needed for the job.

Both January trips were intense exercises. The first mission early in the month was less than fruitful and by the second, Eagleburger was in the middle of a war zone. Because of the eight-hour time difference with Washington, he found himself briefing Baker when most people were sleeping in Israel. "And it doesn't help your sleeping habits to get up in the middle of the night and run down to some room to put on your gas mask," he deadpans. He says he donned the mask once and thought he looked too much like a "short, squat man from Mars. So every other time, I just went down to the room and smoked my cigarettes and let everyone else put on masks and figured if they ever dropped a gas bomb, I could put it on in a hurry."

For his part, Eagleburger suggests that "any" of a number of people could have headed the mission. "I happen to believe there is a thing called diplomacy," he says, "and people who know how to do it, and it doesn't mean you have to have 30 years of experience.

"I'm not arguing at all that it wasn't helpful that I knew the Israelis and that I dealt with them before. {The mission required} someone they know cares about them, at the same time somebody who can be straight up with them and when there are disagreements hold the U.S. line but do it in a way that they understand there is a good reason you're being difficult. And know you're looking for solutions."

And he is, many Democrats gratefully report, known to be more pragmatic than Republican, as evidenced by the fact that he has never been high on Jesse Helms's Christmas card list.

"He's a thoughtful behind-the-scenes operator, who allows you to believe he's open to your advice," says Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"I don't think they could have gotten anyone better to go to Israel," says Solarz. "There are few who have his knowledge of geopolitical realities in the world and he has demonstrated consistent sympathy for the Israelis. They know that and they trust him."

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who first met him when Eagleburger was ambassador to Yugoslavia in the late '70s, adds that Eagleburger's ability to home in on "the emotion of a situation" also helped in this case. "He had a very emotional history he had to deal with over there and he knew that -- that's why I'm sure he was so successful."

Successful in this context means that in buying desperately needed time, Eagleburger's mission may have created sympathy for Israel's position among the Arab nations allied with the United States. "The fact of the matter is," he says, "the longer the time has gone on, and the more Iraq attacks Israel, the more understanding there is and will be if they do something."

When asked why the Israelis agreed, at least for now, to restrain themselves after balking at first, Eagleburger demurs, saying it is "an area I don't want to talk about." But then, using his best diplospeak, he offers that Israel "appreciates the complicated nature of the coalition. That is not to say that we would ever challenge their right to defend themselves."

He denies there was any promise of increased financial aid to Israel. "We cut no deals," he says.

Eagleburger says Israel's decision not to retaliate was "fairly hard ... the reason being their fundamental belief that they must defend themselves. You cannot understand any of this without understanding the last 80 years of history. What I think has happened in the last month is a very clear demonstration to the people and government of Israel that we give a damn."

The birth of Eagleburger's Foreign Service career was more a matter of serendipity than design. After a stint in the Army after graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1952, Eagleburger returned to the university for his graduate studies. By chance, he saw the Foreign Service exam was being given. He took it and passed, starting his world travels in 1957 in Honduras.

Following a distinguished but relatively low-profile decade in the Foreign Service and the Department of Defense, Eagleburger stepped into the White House fishbowl in 1969 when he was named executive assistant to Henry Kissinger, who was then national security adviser to Richard Nixon. Following his years in Yugoslavia under Jimmy Carter, he returned to Washington in 1981 to be named assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the Reagan administration. The following year he was promoted to undersecretary for political affairs, the third-ranking post in the State Department.

Along the way, he married twice and produced three sons, all of whom are named Lawrence. "First of all, it was ego," he explains about his sons, who go by their middle names. "And secondly, I wanted to screw up the Social Security system."

He actually tried to throw in his diplomatic towel seven years ago to become president of Kissinger's globe-trotting consulting firm. Then, in 1988, James Baker and George Bush personally asked him to come back as Baker's alter ego.

Where Baker is reserved and closed, Eagleburger is full of humor and stories. At State, the men created a management structure to avoid overlapping, with Eagleburger jumping in when Baker is focused elsewhere. That has occurred quite often and has ranged from Eagleburger's management of the agency's internal budget to the Eastern European situation. "I guess in the end," says Eagleburger, discussing his reason for returning to public service, "I thought this would be more interesting than making money."

He was confirmed swiftly because, in the words of one congressional aide, he "evidenced the diplomatic experience the Baker inner circle did not have at the time." But there were still concerns about possible conflicts of interest with the Kissinger Associates Inc. international client list, which Eagleburger refused to divulge. Eagleburger assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he would sever his ties with the Kissinger firm, and recuse himself for at least a year from any matter at State that involved a former client.

And after two years years under Baker, there is still one question that seems to drive this normally unflappable man crazy: Is he truly a part of the much-touted Baker inner circle at the agency?

"I haven't had any problem, despite everybody's attempt to make it look like I have," he says. "Every time I say this, everyone nods and thinks 'Oh, I'm sure he says this because he has to say it.'

"When I need to see Jim Baker I see him. When I need to know what he's thinking, he tells me. My view is that a deputy does whatever it is the secretary is not doing -- you may notice I get a little excited on this topic. It is a great waste of resources if the deputy is trying to do the same thing the secretary is doing."

As Eagleburger wraps up his third decade in his profession of choice, he is asked to name some of the high points.

"That's a very tough one to answer because it's like the expression about the old whore," he says. "You reach a stage where you don't get terribly excited about much anymore. I don't. I really don't.

"I do know this: I believe very, very deeply that the world my kids have to live in in the 21st century is going to be quite different but not necessarily better. If the U.S. doesn't stay engaged in the process of formulating the new order, that world is going to be in great trouble. If I get excited about anything, it is doing whatever I can to keep the American people engaged."