At 50, AARP Enters Its Golden Years

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

The late-night comedians love to needle AARP as the unflagging advance team for senility. They're the folks who send the dreaded membership invite when you hit 50, an otherwise sunny reminder that you're well on your way to that last roundup.

David Letterman, for one, suggested that Sylvester Stallone's latest geriatric version of Rambo should qualify for "an AARP discount on ammo." Jon Stewart joked that presidential candidates at an AARP-sponsored debate embraced the organization's principles, including that "your grandchildren are, in fact, adorable." The AARP debate was like others, Conan O'Brien observed, "except the moderator asked the same question over and over."

Life as a punch line can present certain annoying challenges, much like the achy joints and ever-failing vision that usually accompany aging itself.

But look who's laughing all the way to the early-bird special.

Fifty years after its founding by a retired high school principal, AARP is a premier lobbying power in Washington. Its 40 million members, many of them more than capable of finding a voting booth on Election Day, make it the country's single largest organization -- that is, if you don't count a little outfit called the Catholic Church.

As it begins its three-day anniversary party in Washington today, AARP won't be renting out a bingo hall for its opening ceremony. Try the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where stars of the over-50 set -- actress Sally Field, moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and NASCAR speedster Richard Petty, among them -- are to offer testimonials.

Then, at the Washington Convention Center over the next several nights, performances by Chaka Khan, Chicago and Paul Simon are likely to inspire, if not a love-in, then at least a massive outbreak of air guitar.

The celebration's geography is a reminder of AARP's muscle in Washington, its home base, where five years ago it helped President Bush persuade Congress to add prescription drug benefits to Medicare. Two years later, AARP flexed again, leading opposition to Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts.

"It's the largest, most effective lobbying group in D.C., and probably the world," said James Thurber, an American University government professor who studies lobbying. "It can stimulate people out there very quickly and get them to push back on issues. Just the threat of AARP against you gets people to change their minds."

Most recently, AARP has mounted a "Divided We Fail" campaign, urging political leaders to set aside partisan rancor to reform health care and to strengthen long-term financial security. The campaign's logo is the silhouetted fusion of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. If the message seems a bit utopian for Washington, it serves another purpose: spreading AARP's name. As much as anything, AARP is a brand -- created in 1999 when the group performed a nip-and-tuck on its former title, the American Association of Retired Persons.

By dropping the "Retired" and adopting a four-letter name, AARP made itself more palatable to the baby boomers it was counting on to help churn hundreds of millions a year in revenue through membership fees and services. There are AARP television shows, a newspaper and glossy magazines, which cater to those boomers with cover stories about forever-young types like Caroline Kennedy (50!) and Jack Nicholson (71!). "Secrets of Your SEX DRIVE," began one recent headline. "Why You Want It, When You Want It . . . And How to Want It More."

AARP's varying missions raise the question: Is it an advocacy group or a business? And who is its constituency: those who spent their formative years swooning over Sinatra or rocking to the Stones?

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