ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, THE DAPPER, DIMINUTIVE AND DEEPLY tanned editor in chief of The Washington Times, is introducing Clare Boothe Luce in flowery, well-cadenced phrases, to the assembled throng of Young Republicans. "Politics . . . diplomacy . . . a magazine editor . . . a playwright . . . a consultant to presidents," de Borchgrave intones. "A glamorous intellectual, a conservative intellectual . . ." De Borchgrave conjures the spirit of her late husband, Henry R. Luce, founder of Time Inc., calling him "the most awesome media emperor in the world." He deftly works in an encomium from old friend and conservative ally Sen. Barry Goldwater: "Her advice to me has been invaluable. Just look her straight in the eye and tell her I love her."

He finishes, finally, and as the band plays "Time On My Hands," Arnaud de Borchgrave presents Clare Boothe Luce with the Young Republican National Federation's Americanism Award, for her "major contributions to the American principles of freedom, individual liberty and free enterprise." It's not an award to sneeze at. Past recipients have included Goldwater, William F. Buckley, John Wayne, Bob Hope and Nancy Reagan.

Playfully, Luce puts the silver plate award on her head, then clasps it to her bosom. The Young Republicans love it.

"I am . . . embarrassed," says Clare Boothe Luce. Actually, she's delighted -- delighted to hear her achievements recalled, and at such graceful length; delighted to be here in the spotlight, in front of a gigantic American flag, which does seem appropriate, the focus of attention now for all these "beautiful, bright, enthusiastic, energetic, brilliant, sexy young Republicans." They really get off on that last adjective.

It's been a long evening, so her remarks are relatively brief: extemporaneous bits of personalized history, her specialty. "I told you I had lived a long, long time," she says at one point. "In 1936, 50 years ago, Henry Luce had just published Life magazine. I had just written a play called 'The Women' . . ." There's a mention, but not the vaunted imitation, of her good friend Winston Churchill, and an anecdote about lunching with JFK at the White House shortly after the Bay of Pigs disaster and asking him how history would sum him up in one sentence, a favorite game she plays with presidents and other world leaders. "He didn't live long enough to write that sentence," she adds.

She winds up with a ringing endorsement of the Reagan presidency -- "He returned the United States to a sense of strength and solidity, and forward progress" -- and exhorts them, and the Congress, to help President Reagan stop the Soviet threat in Central America.

Luce gets a standing ovation, of course. She returns to the dais, picks up a white table napkin, holds it above her head and begins whirling it, a gleeful smile on her face. Soon the room is a sea of whirling white napkins. People reverently crowd around her, offering earnest congratulations, eager to shake her hand, exchange a few words and get close to a living American legend, this white-haired figure of geriatric glamor in an elegant black gown, diamonds and pearls. She deals with the adulation calmly, matter-of-factly, with the kind of practiced grace you'd expect from someone who's been in the public eye for more than half a century.

Clare Boothe Luce looks -- no surprise -- splendidly turned out one afternoon several weeks later, when her "so dreadful" schedule finally permits time for an interview. A white silk blouse and a black and white houndstooth check skirt is the basic costume, enhanced by the gold coin necklace she wears, the black textured stockings encasing her shapely legs, the black suede pumps. Her short white hair is brushed back, her skin looks pink and healthy. Her blue eyes are shielded by a pair of tinted, rimless glasses.

"She still worries about what to wear," says longtime friend Letitia Baldrige, social secretary to Luce when she was ambassador to Italy during the Eisenhower administration. "She pours on the tea rose perfume. She still loves her little sable jacket. Clare has always been ardently feminine. As a result she really puts men at their ease . . . "

But up close, shaking her hand, you get no whiff of tea rose, or any other perfume, for that matter.

What you get is the scent of . . . advanced age. As it happens, Clare Boothe Luce was 83 in April.

Even now, her life is full of lunches and speeches, banquets, awards ceremonies and embassy parties, not to mention board meetings and those civilized little dinners she frequently gives in her own apartment, where the guests have included Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Attorney General Ed Meese, CIA Director William Casey, Sens. Richard Lugar, Malcolm Wallop and John Warner, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin and his wife Ruth Boorstin and superflack Bob Gray, among others. Gray, who escorts Luce to embassy parties, first got to know her when he worked at the White House as President Eisenhower's appointments secretary. He remembers her as a woman who broke the rules of Washington dinner parties of that period, Gray recalls, and got by with it.

" 'I don't want to go and talk about babies,' she would say when it came time for the men and women to separate," Gray recalls, " 'I want to stay with the men.' She was drop-dead gorgeous in those days, and intellectually so stimulating, the men always circulated around her anyway."

Not that much has changed. Luce's current social schedule would tax a woman half her age and she's booked months in advance. You only have to see her give a speech or accept an award to understand why. She loves an audience, loves being center stage. These activities sustain her, renew her, reconfirm her. They give excitement and focus and meaning to these latter days of her life, the latter days of a remarkable and original American woman, an intellectual grande dame who has defied tradition and opened doors and been on speaking terms with every president from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan. Clare Boothe Luce still wants in on the national dialogue. She's not ready to shut up and fade away quite yet, thank you.

She's a consultant to the National Security Council, a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger and a member of The Washington Times advisory board. Nice little pats on the head for a smart, old lady conservative? Does Clare Boothe Luce still have any clout?

"I would say her political influence today in broad policy is as great as it's ever been," says Edwin Feulner Jr., head of the Heritage Foundation, the neoconservative think tank where Luce is on the board of advisors. "I talk to her a couple of times a week. She's truly an amazing person, always on the cutting edge of new ideas in intelligence, in foreign policy. She was an early supporter of SDI Strategic Defense Initiative , really urged them to get on with it . . . She's very close to Dick Lugar and Ed Meese and U.N. Ambassador Vernon Walters. She sees the president socially . . ." According to Feulner, it's not at all a pat on the head for dear old Clare. "People really do pay attention," he says.

There is no doubt that Clare Boothe Luce has access. She's often photographed talking intently with Casey, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Goldwater, Buckley or some other prominent figure at one important gathering or another in Washington or New York. And the accolades keep coming her way: At the National Review's 30th anniversary gala last December at the Plaza Hotel in New York, the New York Post society columnist Suzy reported that "Clare Boothe Luce, sitting at President Reagan's left, looked glorious in black and white satin and pearls, and heard herself referred to by Bill Buckley as 'God's definitive putdown to male chauvinism.' Clare couldn't have said it better herself."

RONALD REAGAN'S ELECTION as president in the White House was one of the major reasons Clare Boothe Luce moved back to Washington in 1981 from Hawaii, where she had stayed on after her husband Henry Luce died in 1967, at age 69.

"I was building a house in Hawaii," she recalls, "where I was going to do nothing but look at the ocean, having led such an active life, and then gradually it began to dawn on me that I would either fill my remaining years with intellectual relationships and work, or I would wither away. I am sure that if I had a husband who was my age and as healthy as I am, or maybe not even as healthy, just someone to love and care for and sit and talk with in the evening, I would have stayed in Hawaii."

But it wasn't just that the atmosphere was more congenial, with the Republicans back in power. It was also that Reagan reinstated the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which President Carter had abolished, and on which Luce served during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

The 14-member board, currently chaired by former ambassador to Great Britain Anne Armstrong, and whose members also include former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former senator Howard Baker and former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, meets every other month for two days of highly classified meetings.

"We do our work, we work hard," she Clare Boothe Luce says, not wanting to get into specifics. But there she was, flying in from Hawaii six times a year.

"I had to go to the meetings, and back. It goes on and on. I found myself trying to commute, getting more and more exhausted. I really wanted a 'Star Trek' arrangement, where I could be beamed in from Honolulu -- that would have been delightful," she says with a smile.Bored with vegetating in Hawaii, she might logically have returned to New York, where she was born (her mother was an actress, her father was a fiddler who deserted his family); where she was married (by her mother's arrangement) to wealthy businessman George Brokaw, by whom she had her only child, a daughter, Ann, who was killed in a car accident at college in 1946; where she was divorced six years later and left with a small fortune; where she charmed her way into a job at Conde' Nast writing captions for Vogue and ended up managing editor of Vanity Fair; where she married Henry Luce and began writing plays, not necessarily in that order. What family ties she has are in New York. "She has no blood relatives," notes Sybil Cooper, her appointments secretary, "but there are a lot of Luces. She's close to her stepson Henry Luce III and his wife Nancy who live in New York."

New York, however, no longer appeals. "New York scares me," she says. "I love Washington. I love the openness of Washington, the patches of green . . . It is now a very sophisticated city, intellectually and culturally."

But, she adds, "the private life has become more and more public. The public life is more and more commercialized. That isn't good."

She remembers a much different Washington when she served as congresswoman from Connecticut from 1943 to 1947.

"I was one of the very few Republicans elected in the Roosevelt landslide," she says. "I lived in an apartment, at the Wardman Park. It was the war, and there was a feeling of great deprivation about a lot of things.. We all shared taxis. I got to know a number of senators sharing a taxi every morning going to the Capitol with Arthur Vandenburg or Charles Varnum.

FDR, Henry Wallace, Sen. Wayne Morse . . . someone once said Clare Boothe Luce has outlived most of her enemies, she is reminded. "I said it," she says. Does she get much satisfaction from that?

"It isn't your enemies you miss," she replies. "What you miss is the struggle over ideas. My enemies were gained in terms of the ideas I was putting forth that other people didn't like. The first time I was aware of this, in the late '30s, when it seemed to me a war was coming, and it was going to be our war, and should be our war. Even at that time I was an advocate of that. I had differences with Mr. Roosevelt. I thought we should be preparing for war."

She also tangled with Henry Wallace when he was vice president and when he ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket. She coined the word "globaloney" to describe Wallace's international aviation freedom-of-the-air policy. "I emerged as an absolutely hopeless isolationist," she recalls. When he ran for president in 1948 she called him "Red Hank Wallace." They feuded for years.

"We were reconciled," she says. "I got a lovely letter from him, a year or two before he died. He was a gentleman, a very sweet gentleman."

She would not apply that term to the late Democratic senator from Oregon, Wayne Morse, dissenting member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who called her mentally unstable and a slanderer of FDR and effectively scuttled her nomination as ambassador to Brazil in 1959. She said at the time, "My difficulties, of course, go some years back and began when Senator Wayne Morse was kicked in the head by a horse."In 1951 a mare broke Morse's jaw in a Virginia horse show.) Her nomination was confirmed by the Senate, 79-11, and President Eisenhower defended her (she had been a popular and effective ambassador to Italy from 1953 to 1957, until an illness caused her to resign), but Luce resigned the ambassadorship, saying, "the climate of good will was poisoned by thousands of words of extraordinarily ugly charges against my person, and of distrust of the mission I was to undertake."

A more recent, comparatively minor media flap occurred in 1982, when Harper's ran an excerpt from a Wilfrid Sheed book about her, with the catchy, if inaccurate, cover line "From Courtesan to Career Woman." It still amuses her. "I would have rather had it read, 'From Career Woman to Courtesan.' Now, that would have really got them talking," she says, laughing.

Is Clare Boothe Luce the first modern woman?

"Well, I didn't invent the modern woman," she replies. "Women in Europe . . . there was a woman suffrage movement in Europe in the early 19th century. I think I was one of the first married women to have a public career -- at a certain price. Well, always, you pay for everything . . . "

The price for marrying Henry Luce was being excluded from the pages of Time, although she was a war correspondent for Life. Luce himself wrote a "very severe" Time review of her 1935 play, "Abide With Me," which ran three months on Broadway anyway. "He thought he had to do it," she says. He also decided against running the Time cover story on her in April 1954 when she was ambassador to Italy. "He was concerned about nepotism," she says matter-of-factly, though it must have been a blow at the time. "In a way it worked out strangely for me," she says. "Other magazines wrote about it."

Does she miss her husband Harry? "Oh, yes, very much," she says, unhesitatingly. She looks down a moment, then adds, "more and more with the passing of the years . . . "

They were, no question, the most famous media couple of their day. "They had their ups and downs, like most marriages, but they stayed the course," says Letitia Baldrige. "When she was ambassador, he lived in Italy six months out of the year and ran Time from there. I think he was very proud of her."

In the end, if there is a footnote for her in history, Clare Boothe Luce senses it will be "wife of the man who invented international journalism . . . He was a publishing genius, you know. We don't have them anymore. It's all the bottom line, that's all they talk about, the bottom line. They don't take risks."

Luce converted to Catholicism after the death of her daughter. Henry Luce was the son of Presbyterian missionaries in China. Does she believe she will join him again somewhere in an afterlife? "I will have to join him somewhere . . . What will I look like, what will he look like -- I don't speculate about such things. I just leave it up to God . . ."

She gets up from her chair and, offering tea, heads toward the kitchen. When she returns with the tea, the talk turns briefly to writing, which was, she has often said, her favorite career "beyond anything else . . . I often say when I wake up in the middle of the night, 'If only I had stayed with my real vocation, which was playwriting." She wrote seven plays, had three solid Broadway hits ("Margin for Error," 1939; "Kiss the Boys Goodbye," 1938, "The Women," 1936). The latter is best remembered, partly because MGM made a very successful, all-star movie of it in 1939. "My grandniece in college wrote and asked did I know it's become a cult movie, along with 'Frankenstein.' " she says. Yes, she has a cassette of it. "I played it once," she says. "I think they hoked it up, of course, but it was a lovely cast. I think the parts they kept from the play were best . . ." The play is frequently revived, this year in London and Berlin, for the first time. "I'm enormously surprised at how popular it still is."

LUCE SEEMS PREOCCUPIED with the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl when we meet several weeks later for a follow-up interview: How many people really were affected, and will they all be incarcerated in some "radiation gulag," she wonders darkly. "Even in a dictatorship there should be a tremendous rolling of heads," she declares.

She tells me there was a Foreign Intelligence Discussion Group at City Tavern the evening before. "I didn't write anything, I winged it," she says. "I find the speeches go better if I just wing it. It was a very interesting group -- we talked about Libya and the Arab world. Nobody agreed with my views at all. That made for an interesting evening."

Just as frequently, one of her evenings might consist of dinner and conversation at the home of conservative columnist Michael Novak and his wife Karen who've become good friends over the past five years. "You know, I thought she would expect a very formal kind of dinner," says Karen Novak. "We live very casually. She had a delightful time the first time she came. We have two children in college, and she'll go off in a corner and draw them out. She really wants to know what young people are doing, and what they think . . . There are many sides to Clare. She's a very caring person. The loss of her daughter was a very serious thing for her. Her daughter was her greatest accomplishment, she says. And she's always recommending books she runs across -- Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist , for instance. She always reads very heavy stuff."

Luce has been trying to get her social schedule under control. "If I have a lunch, I won't do a dinner," she says. "If I have a dinner, I won't do lunch. Sometimes I don't do anything. I just sit here and catch up on my correspondnece, or work on a couple of speeches I've been asked to make." She's often up until the wee hours, "when I've gotten home from a party or a dinner, then I can really read, and think. I listen to the TV less and less. I find that the radio and the newspapers are the mediums to be preferred."

As for being a role model, "I think I probably was," she says, "because I did so many things, because I was a great success in many different things, so I'm called that by many young people. I didn't want pure politics . . . I get the most extraordinary letters, and they are rather comforting. People who say, 'You've been my role model for years.' " She laughs softly. "Now, that is the real satisfaction that you get in life -- the people who say you've changed their lives."

According to British-born author Sylvia Morris, now at work on the definitive biography of Clare Boothe Luce, to be published by Houghton Mifflin, one of her greatest fears about advancing age is "losing her mind." Luce admits she sometimes forgets names and dates now and her eyesight isn't what it once was. She's had a number of cataract operations. "I see very well straight ahead," she says. "Looking down is a tricky business."

Any serious illness she's had to cope with? "I had a bad one in October, as a matter of fact, the same miserable operation that the president had. I left the hospital on the fifth day. 'Oh, no, Mrs. Luce,' the nurse said, 'you can't go, the doctor hasn't checked you out yet.' I'm checking myself out, I told her. I know my rights."

She's aware of certain intimations of her mortality in some of the invitations she receives. "Someone will ask, can they bring along their niece or nephew, they so want to meet me . . . while I'm still alive," she adds, laughing.

I've asked to see the Time portrait of Clare Boothe Luce, ambassador to Italy, the one Time readers never saw. It hangs in her apartment down the hall, and even though guests are expected momentarily for cocktails, I get a quick tour -- quick past the kitchen, where two silver bowls heaped with macadamia nuts are on a counter, and past the sitting room where she pauses to show me the Rene' Magritte painting of her as a dagger and a rose. She rather likes that concept of her, it's evident. It's a light and airy apartment, simply and tastefully furnished in white and beige and browns, with two beautiful blue and beige oriental rugs in the sitting room, which has a sparkling view of the Potomac. It's not a cluttered-up life she's living now. The signed color photos of President Reagan and Nancy -- "To Clare, with warm affection" -- the framed color portrait of Henry Luce, are in her study. In an alcove are the green, Jo Davidson busts of Clare Boothe and Henry Luce. She gives Harry an affectionate pat on the head as we leave the study.

The Time portrait, on a far wall in her bedroom, makes her look a bit like mid-Grace Kelly, fuller of face than she is in real life, but it's a serene and thoughtful work in pastels by Chaliapin, who did many Time covers of that period -- and also one in the Time cover style from a photograph of her beloved daughter, Ann, a dark-haired coed with a winning, toothy smile, which hangs on the wall by Luce's queen-sized bed.

"I don't get enough exercise," she was saying earlier. "I have one of those bicycles . . . I do miss the beach." (She's an excellent swimmer. She took up scuba diving in her sixties.)

She switches on the TV set on a cart near her bed. Ironically, an aerobics class is in progress. She watches for a minute, amused, then switches it off, but, picking up on the one-two, one-two rhythm, hands in the air, she does an aerobics dance down the corridor without missing a beat.