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Palin Breaks From Luce Mold

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/clare_booth_luce_by_van_vechten1.jpgClare Boothe Luce (Library of Congress)

For nearly three generations, she was the gold standard for women of the Republican Party. Fierce and influential, she was an international power-broker with a reach that extended far beyond her brief time in Congress. That was just window dressing.

In truth, Claire Boothe Luce helped define the modern GOP by attacking communism at every venue available to her — which was extensive, for her husband was the Time Inc. co-founder, Henry Luce. She preached an aggressive foreign policy and scaled-back domestic programs. While her husband threw his considerable weight around in the pages of Time and Life and Fortune, Clare Boothe Luce became a stalwart of modern conservatism, the model for everyone who came after her.

Though Luce received little formal education, and was helped by her marriage to the most successful magazine publisher in the history of the genre, she possessed an intellectual heft that even her critics had to acknowledge. In this, she is similar to the more traditional, well-heeled conservatives — like former U.N. Amb. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Britain’s former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, even current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

These strong conservative women often seemed to present a view from on high. It was as if they were bestowing their gifts of foresight and knowledge to the public at large. Luce, in particular, possessed the aura of a Grand Dame entering public life to serve the people in their hour of need.

But the age of Luce seems finally to have come to an end. A strong populist wind is blowing through the Republican Party, blowing away the old patronizing air.

Last week should have been the culmination of Luce’s legacy. When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin accepted her party’s nomination for the vice presidency, here was a woman — like Luce, from humble beginnings — who now stood on the verge of the second-most-important job in the free world.

Palin, speaking to the 20,000 in the Xcel Energy Center and the 38-million watch at home, was, like Luce, brash and outspoken — a self-described pit-bull who would do anything to ensure her party’s victory in 2008.

“Her own beginnings were pretty humble,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, when talking about Luce. “That life experience, in a way, mirrors Palin’s. She didn’t disdain populist thought. She loved getting into it. Palin is just a different kind of figure who could only have been successful at this time in history.”

Palin is, in fact, a new iteration of the GOP’s woman politician. For she brings some of that populist power of Barry M. Goldwater and even Ronald Reagan. The old Luce model, dependent on elites, was dismantled when Palin took the stage.

Palin spoke with a bluntness and a kind of relatability often lacking in Republican women in politics. She twisted the Luce model, meshed it with a Western sensibility, and offered a new voice that still has millions of Americans talking. Her speech was almost a declaration that she, and women like her, would now be running the show.

Palin’s rise fits squarely with the thematic movement of the general campaign. Since the start of the general election the public has been struggling with the notion of what it means to be part of the “elite” in America, and whether we want them running things.

The founding fathers who created the American experiment — men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin — believed in the upward movement, placing a primacy on education and expansion of the mind.

But since the start, a parallel story line has also flourished. It was not geared to elite schools like Harvard, to the cloakrooms of Washington power or the private clubs of Wall Street. It was born out of a belief in the American dream — the power of reinvention and the move West and the imagery of individualism. It is a roll-up-your-sleeves, let’s get things done conservatism we can now associate with Palin.

Last Thursday, before Sen. John McCain accepted the nomination, Kerry Healy, former Massachusetts lieutenant governor and former head of her state party, said, “He’s someone you perhaps more admire than relate to. For leaders we want both. We want them to be both just like us and better than we are — and that’s a hard thing to do.”

But someone like Palin can do this.

Many did have a hard time relating to a woman like Luce, since hers was far from the typical experience of most Americans. Palin does not have this issue.

She is a mother of five, including a baby with special needs, who married her high-school sweetheart, drives herself to work and disdains the trappings of the supposed intellectual elite. The University of Idaho is a fine school, thank you very much.

As for the media elite, of which Luce was a key part? Palin doesn’t need to talk to them. She can speak directly to the people, her people. Those who follow the campaign, reporters who believe in asking tough questions of our potential leaders, will just have to deal.

But is Palin the new mold for the modern Republican woman; or an aberration from everything women within the GOP have worked toward since Luce left public life in the early 1960s?

“We need to look at models like Condoleezza Rice and Claire Boothe Luce,” said Jennifer Stockman, national co-chairman of the Republican Majority for Choice, who also serves as president of the board of directors for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. “Look at their depth, their experience, the fact that they’re proven intellectual powerhouses. That’s the kind of female model that many of us were looking forward to seeing — not just somebody who’s been able to balance a big career and family. I would have loved to seen a Condi Rice or Kay Bailey Hutchinson. These are woman achievers in their own right who’ve done more than being an every-woman.

“There are thousands of women who can relate to Sarah Palin and I guess that’s part of her appeal,” Stockman went on to say. “But she’s on the far end of the Republican party when it comes to social issues. We were so close to getting a moderate and instead we got a younger, prettier Phyllis Schlafly.”

Ah, Schlafly. In an almost-Palin like demeanor, she’s spent most of her public life lashing out at the Eastern elites, at the media, at the early feminist writings of Gloria Steinem and Betty Frieden. She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, sex education in schools and justices whom she deemed were creating policy from the Supreme Court. Palin is Schlafly’s kind of Republican — one not afraid to defend her extreme views and aim straight at the the supposed Washington establishment with a hunting rifle. Needless to say, Schlafly is no fan of Luce and all she represents.

“She got power the old-fashioned way,” Schlafly said of Luce. “She married it. Hillary [Rodham Clinton] too. That’s not true of Sarah Palin, it’s not true of me and it’s not true of Condoleezza Rice. Feminists don’t like successful women. They could not believe that I was doing the work I was doing because they believe that the old patriarchal system holds women down.”

“My belief is that she’s resonating with women and men in the center,” said Candice Straight, former co-chair of the New Jersey Republican Party and member of the 2004 Bush-Cheney National Finance committee who co-founded the pro-choice Republican group the WISH LIST. “She is. She’s resonated with me and I think she’s good for the ticket. When people ask me about her I just remind them she has an 80 percent approval rating in Alaska. She’s doing what people want her to do.”

As the new rock star in the campaign, one that will continue to draw Obama-like crowds to events, Palin will continue to make her mark regardless of the outcome in November.

In so doing, she will become the new model for Republican women, one closer to the deeply populist strain that has always existed in America, but now seems ready to bubble to the surface.

With Palin, the GOP are presenting the next brand of Republican woman–one people can suffer with and laugh with and live with–rather than the kind of exemplar Luce tried to be for the party she so dearly loved.

Now, nearly 21 years after her death, Luce’s time has finally passed. Get ready for the stampede of the pit bulls.

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