Mar 1 1997

That Fuzzy Gorilla

A daily misdemeanor of our media is their election of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) as the voice of the nation’s elderly. A quick visit to any good newspaper morgue would reveal that this is a fiction.

AARP was exposed by Consumer Reports in 1976 (1/76) and by 60 Minutes in 1978 (5/14/78) as a front for a mail-order racket, selling rip-off insurance to the elderly. Its boss, Leonard Davis, beat a felony rap and retired enormously rich, but his business continued and thrived. Its wares– insurance, a mass magazine and a wide range of services– appear now to be legitimate, but the IRS and the Postal Service continue to contest its claim to be a philanthropic society; AARP pays large indemnities in lieu of taxes and commercial postage, while litigation continues.

The group’s managers therefore have far more to fear from the politicians than the politicians have to fear from them. They have, hence, taken a cautiously conservative stance on public policy, prompted both by self-interest and by business philosophy. Its close financial ties to the insurance industry wholly compromise the organization’s positions on health care reforms.

Washington journalists have nonetheless found AARP, with its “membership” of 30-odd million customers, an indispensable prop for the mythical army of Greedy Geezers. An amusing effort by a right-wing author to promote this myth, The AARP: America’s Most Powerful Lobby and the Clash of Generations, by Charles Morris, is forced to confess that on close study, the monster is, after all, “a warm and fuzzy gorilla,” endearing for its willingness to sacrifice the interests of the elderly for the greater good. (See The Nation, 8/26/96.) “As far as I can find,” Morris wrote, the AARP is “the only seniors’ organization to offer reasoned options for reducing Social Security benefits.”

Attention Washington bureaus: Your Rolodexes are full of fuzz.