As if we hadn't already been put through enough -- what with canceled meetings, fevered phone calls, breathless speculation -- it now looks like we will have to wait until after Inauguration Day for the final episode of the Perils of Jeane. From the episodes we've seen, we know that the fate of the departing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, means almost everything to the far right. We know how deeply Ronald Reagan values her geopolitical vision, her intellectual power, her articulation of his ideology in foreign affairs.

But will he be able to bring her into his councils in a way she would consider (you know, a meaningful relationship), after all she has endured at the hands of the United Nations' assorted Yahoos?

Either way it goes, what's striking is the sheer intensity of the anguishing in public, the decibel level of the conservative claque, the sense of something qualitatively different in the conservative view of the purpose of holding office. Simple dedication to public service, in the interest of getting things done, counts for nothing compared with the advance of a "conservative agenda" defined by ideologues outside of the government as well as within.

Thus the question mark over Kirkpatrick has become a litmus test of foreign policy in much the same way that the prospective move of White House counselor Edwin Meese to the job of attorney general is said by conservatives to be full of all sorts of ill omens for domestic affairs. It's as if the true-blue conservative character of the second Reagan administration cannot be safely entrusted to the management, leadership and judgment of the most conservative president in most people's memory -- and the most popular.

A perfect illustration of this is the current uproar over theb shuffling at the State Department. It is reflected, as well, in the candid concerns of Edwin Feulner Jr., president of the conservative and influential Heritage Foundation. Speaking of the prospect of Meese's departure, he said recently, "We all look at (him) as the true believer and the main point of access to the White House for conservative thoughts and ideas" -- as if the president himself was not repository enough of conservative thought and capable of his own motion of collecting conservative ideas.

"It's not unfair to say that there are very serious differences in this administration between what I call the true believers and the pragmatists," Feulner went on to say, adding: "Pragmatists want to resolve problems, and the true believers want to change institutions and leave a lasting legacy for this administration."

It would be unfair to categorize Jeane Kirkpatrick as being uninterested in solving problems, and still more so to suggest she lacks credentials. Columnist William Buckley wants to "weave her into the flag as the 51st star." William Safire has called her "the only woman who could today be considered as a serious possibility for President of the United States." George F. Will required two columns to register his idolatry: "She unites thought and action, theory and practice, better than anyone in government in this generation," he wrote as he placed her on a pedestal with Dean Acheson and Henry Kissinger.

Listening, you would think the least that Ronald Reagan could do would be to fire either his secretary of state or his National Security Council adviser -- those are the two jobs Kirkpatrick would apparently settle for. Since the president does not seem inclined to oblige anytime soon, the nation will presumably be denied Ambassador Kirkpatrick's excellence.

Whether that would be the calamity her supporters believe it would be is not my point. U.S. foreign policy-making for as lng as I can remember has been at its best when it has been practiced by people who, like firehorses, respond instinctively to the bell without a whole lot of loud whinnying over whether it's a big enough fire. My point is that Kirkpatrick will take only work that carries with it assurance of a degree of decisive, ideological clout beyond the power of even a president to confer.

That's what is distinctively different in the approach of the Reagan "true believers." Ironically, it is nicely captured in the case of a recent Reagan appointee, Paul Nitze, to a senior position in the conduct of arms-control negotiations. Nitze has been in and out of government many times, serving Republicans as well as Democrats; he has held sub-Cabinet jobs and aspired to higher positions, has resigned on principle -- and been rehired.

At a recent dinner given in his honor by a conservative group, he told of an incident in 1961 when he was advising Averell Harriman in an office in Geneva. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was on the phone. Nitze recalled that he could hear Rusk better than Harriman could -- Harriman being hard of hearing. Rusk offered Harriman the job of assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. Harriman accepted, hung up and asked Nitze what job he had been offered. When told, Harriman said, "Damn, I thought it was European affairs, but whatever he and the president want me to do, of course I will do it."

Nitze had differences with Harriman on many matters, he said, "but not on his approach to government service." That is why Paul Nitze is consulting at George Shultz's elbow -- while Ronald Reagan is wrestling with the problem of finding something "that would be worthy of" Jeane Kirkpatrick.