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Stuart Spencer Has A Few Zingers Left

Why Does the Man Who Helped Create Modern Politics and Loves the GOP Lament the Current State of Both?

October 20, 2002|Mark Z. Barabak | Mark Z. Barabak is a Times staff writer who covers politics. He last wrote for the magazine about Arnold Schwarzenegger's political aspirations.

High above Palm Springs, past the intersection of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra drives, lives a celebrity of a different sort, a man as famous and influential in his way as either of those two legends. There is no desert boulevard immortalizing Stuart K. Spencer. Not even a side street or alley. But of the three men, he arguably had the most important impact on world events, helping shape history from a place just offstage. Along with his business partner, the late Bill Roberts, Spencer virtually invented the modern practice of political consulting. More importantly, Spencer and Roberts took a washed-up movie actor, Ronald Reagan, and cast him as something new and vibrant, something they called a "citizen-politician." With their assistance, Reagan romped to the California governorship and, eventually, the White House.

Not bad, Spencer says, for a guy who started with $500, a degree from Cal State Los Angeles and dreams (back when he ran the city parks in Alhambra) of coaching big-time college football. On a playing field or inside a smoky back room, competition, not ideology, is what has always driven Spencer. This is not to say that he lacks a strong set of core beliefs--those might surprise people who associate him with Reagan's iconic conservatism.

Now 75, Spencer is semiretired and living the luxe life with his wife, Barbara. There is the posh home in Palm Desert (two hip replacements keep him off his private tennis court), an Oregon ranch where he spends summers, and a condo in Maui for golf getaways. He does a bit of lobbying--"influence peddling," as he calls it--and dispenses wisdom via phone and fax to a generation of campaign disciples who revere the salty Spencer as a kind of mountaintop sage. There are no regrets. "Anything I did, I did ... met a lot of great people. Met a lot of [jerks]. I saw a lot of the world."

The present and future, though, are cause for concern. He laments the state of modern political campaigning--"the monster Bill and I created"--with its reductive emphasis on polling, focus groups and fund-raising. And he worries about the continued viability of the Republican Party, particularly in California, where the GOP is struggling to shed an image of exclusion and intolerance.

"You have to show some openness to bring people in and let the debate rage within the party," he says. "I mean, as long as we're going to be a basically two-party state or nation, there's going to have to be a lot of room in both parties for points of view. The Democrats since the Clinton era ... have really broadened their base. They've moved toward the middle ... a lot. I think the Republicans got to sort of do the same thing."

For his valedictory, Spencer has turned the courtship of estranged Latinos into something of a personal crusade. "Our party has a sad and politically self-defeating history of alienating immigrant groups and new voters," he said in a scathing assessment, dispatched five years ago as an open letter to fellow Republicans. "The GOP closed the door to the Irish and the Italian immigrants in Massachusetts and New York in the last century. We did the same to Poles and other Eastern Europeans in Chicago and other urban centers."

With the explosive growth of the Latino population, today's choice is simple, Spencer said: The Republican Party can change, or consign itself to permanent minority status.

Stu Spencer is hosting lunch, root beer and sandwiches, in the super-sized RV garage he turned into his home office. He is wearing blue shorts, deck shoes, little white ankle socks and a gray-striped polo shirt splotched with mustard, which he has not bothered to change for company. His flagrant disregard for fashion is notorious. (People still talk of the purple double-knit suit he wore during the Gerald Ford administration.)

Photos from the Reagan years show him alongside Ronald and Nancy--at the White House, traveling aboard Air Force One--with tie askew, collar undone and shirttail flapping out the side. Call it sloppiness. Others see a welcome lack of pretense and pomposity, which helps explain how Spencer became such a valued advisor to Reagan and many other politicians. "There's an absence of arrogance, of attitude and posturing on his part, that's refreshing in this business," says Don Sipple, a Republican campaign strategist who has known and admired Spencer for close to 30 years.

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