One of this century's unique figures is about to be in the news again. By February of even-numbered years, since time out of mind, the secretary of the Navy has had to decide whether to extend Adm. Hyman G. Rickover's active duty for yet another two years. The current secretary, John Lehman, can expect at least as much advice on this pending decision as countless of his predecessors--from such random quarters as the odd congressional committee chairman, passers-by on the street, and other casually interested folks, such as, say, the president. The decision is usually made the preceding summer or early fall, so the papers are probably in Lehman's in-box by now--sitting there staring at him.

The object of all this biennial attention is not only Washington's ultimate survivor, he is-- more importantly--one of its perennial winners. The two traits are not unrelated. As the years have rolled on he has come to know more and more about the business of building and operating nuclear-powered ships. He and his staff have such a combination of institutional memory and expertise, especially compared with the civilians who come and go from the Defense Department, that they win a good many more than they lose. He has both survived because he wins and won because he has survived.

For many years he has played the Hill the way Casals played the cello, but many of his strongest congressional supporters--Pastore, Rivers, Hebert--are no longer around. And he is not the darling of the new military reform movement.

Rickover's influence, in the Navy and in the country, has spread light years beyond the construction of naval nuclear reactors. Seeing the need for better-educated officers and enlisted men to run his power plants, for example, he has become a major force in education at the Naval Academy and in the NROTC program. His "why-not-the-best" standards about nuclear ship propulsion have affected the rest of the Navy as well, to the point that generations of non-nuclear officers have gnashed their teeth at having to go to a special school on conventional propulsion before assuming their seagoing commands.

Rickover is the scourge of the conglomerate builders of nuclear-powered warships, insisting on maintaining a whip hand over his projects that leaves very little room for their corporate notions of profit, and none for the Washington lawyers who handle their claims against the government. "I treat the government's money as if it were my own" he is fond of saying. There are several corporate board rooms where they must wonder if Hyman Rickover has ever spent a nickel on himself.

In the strength of his no-nonsense personality, in the indomitability of his will, and in his --well--prickliness Rickover resembles only a few modern figures. To me the closest parallels are Charles de Gaulle and Menachem Begin. These sorts of men simply seem to have a greater specific gravity than other people. They distort the force fields around them, bending more of the world to their wills than seems possible or reasonable, especially to those who get bent. Such men can be infuriating to deal with, and when they are wrong, their mistakes can be as lasting as their triumphs.

But the de Gaulles, the Begins, and the Rickovers are the people whose impacts reach far beyond, and last long after, their own lives. You disagree with the Kindly Old Gentleman, as he is sometimes dubbed in the Pentagon, about the proper size for aircraft carriers, or any of a number of other subjects? You are one of those unfortunates who has had a major (or even minor) set-to with him and remember feeling as if you had gone 12 rounds with Ali? I understand, believe me.

Still, keep a few things in mind: There is no Soviet skipper, anywhere in the world, who sleeps soundly in his sea cabin. He can never be sure that he isn't in the cross-hairs of the periscope of one of Rickover's marvelous, quite black attack boats. And, as we fuss with the MX and the agonizingly hard problem of fixing the vulnerability of our ICBMs, we have some breathing space--because some more of Rickover's products, carrying their Poseidon and Trident missiles, slip silently on patrol somewhere beneath the Atlantic and Pacific.

His ships are commanded and operated by some of the most extraordinarily able and professional men you will ever meet. Their standards, and those of many of their colleagues in other parts of the Navy, have been shaped directly and indirectly by Rickover's will and perfectionism.

Yes, his standards are so high that there are only two-thirds as many such nuclear-trained officers as we need, and the ships are so expensive that we can't afford nearly enough of them. But unlike much in our modern society, and much in our military establishment, they work, and they work safely and superbly.

So join the watch to see whether John Lehman signs those papers. But while you're wondering whether Rickover will retire this winter or will be sitting there in his office, growling into his telephone, in the 21st century--and whatever your preference in the matter--undertake an instructive little intellectual exercise: try to think of another living American to whom you owe more.