Features

Old school battle

Politics | Anti-AARP ad misses its mark but hits a liberal hornets' nest

Issue: "Big mouth on campus," March 12, 2005

Charles Jarvis, CEO of USA Next, likes to compare the conservative seniors group that he leads to David and the 35-million-member AARP to Goliath.

So it probably shouldn't be a surprise that late last month, USA Next flung a rock at the enormous seniors lobby, in the form of an incendiary internet ad. The rock missed its Goliath but infuriated the Philistine army standing behind him.

The ad ran for one weekend, Feb. 19-20, on the website of the American Spectator, a conservative magazine. (WORLD's website, worldmag.com, turned down the ad.) It was one of eight USA Next ads on the site and part of the group's $10 million campaign to build support for Social Security reform and, at the same time, peel members away from what Mr. Jarvis calls "the largest left-liberal lobbying organization on the planet."

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And it was about as subtle and nuanced as a rock to the forehead. The ad featured a red X over a picture of a U.S. soldier and a green check over a picture of two men wearing tuxedos and kissing each other, and it was titled, "The real AARP agenda." The message: AARP isn't some mainstream group of gray-hairs but a radical force that opposes U.S. troops and fights for same-sex marriage.

The rock missed its mark, wide to the right. The evidence for the charge, according to Mr. Jarvis: AARP hasn't fought for veterans' causes, and its Ohio chapter campaigned against that state's amendment to ban same-sex marriage last fall-interesting things to know about AARP, perhaps, but hardly enough to constitute the "real agenda" of a national organization with a $700 million-plus annual budget.

The ad ran for only the one weekend on the one website, but it was produced for USA Next by the team that produced the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against John Kerry. That connection sent liberals into a frenzy.

Columnists from Molly Ivins to Maureen Dowd denounced the ad, Newsday labeled the Swift Boat consultants as "the most ruthless smear squad in American politics," and leftist bloggers called on President Bush to repudiate the ad. Indignant gay websites posted the ad, giving it much more exposure than USA Next did, and the two gay men pictured in it demanded an apology from USA Next for its use of their images.

One group not making much noise, however, was AARP itself. For two weeks the group shied away from the press on the matter (including a request from WORLD for comment). Finally, on March 2, AARP chief executive Bill Novelli broke the silence in a speech at the University of Texas: "USA Next are not serious people," he said. "They're not engaged in the debate and should be ignored."

But USA Next's larger point-that AARP is more liberal than a sizable minority of its members-is hard to ignore. Mr. Jarvis says that his group's survey of AARP members revealed that 40 percent consider themselves conservative. Meanwhile, AARP has supported increases in payroll taxes, opposed pro-growth tax cuts, and lobbied for vast expansions of federal spending. It also leads the opposition to free-market reforms of Social Security.

In other words, AARP consistently works for bigger government-even as it attracts members from across the ideological spectrum with membership discounts on everything from prescription drugs to hotels. (About those discounts: "We can offer everything AARP offers," says Mr. Jarvis, "and in most cases we beat them.")

This "real AARP agenda" may not be as sensational as supposed opposition to U.S. troops. But conservative seniors who joined AARP to get travel perks may still want to know about it.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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