Does the AARP Have a Progressive Agenda?

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," Dec. 8, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY, HOST: In the "Personal Story" segment tonight, I'm sure some of the 35 million members of the American Association of Retired Persons are as surprised as I am by the analysis that the AARP has drifted left in recent years.

I presented the evidence earlier in the "Talking Points Memo," which you can download from “The Factor” Web site, if you wish. But, as always, maybe I'm wrong.

Joining us now from Washington, Terry Scanlon, president of the Capital Research Center (search), a conservative think-tank, and Dale Van Atta, author of the book "Trust Betrayed, Inside the AARP."

So what did you find out researching your book there, Mr. Van Atta?

DALE VAN ATTA, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Well, I found it was really a Fortune 500 company that sidelines as a lobbying organization for the Washington staff, which is primarily liberal, headed by John Rother for many years, public policy head, and he's been a liberal for many years.

O'REILLY: So this is — this is a money-making machine, almost $80 million a year, which is now advancing — would you say it's a progressive secular agenda, a liberal agenda? What is it?

VAN ATTA: I'd it's a liberal agenda, and it has been for quite some years now. It looked like they might not be liberal when they were siding with Bush last year on the Medicare prescription bill, but they were also pragmatic.

They wanted to win. They had so many loses with the liberals over the years that they had to kind of shine up to some Republicans for a short while. But they're about to diverge in a major way again and show their stripes.

O'REILLY: Mr. Scanlon, do you believe that the 35 million members know the ideology of the AARP?

TERRY SCANLON, CAPITAL RESEARCH CENTER: No, they really don't. Most people join AARP for their hotel and motel discounts. Most people have no idea about their political agenda being as liberal as it is.

O'REILLY: How entrenched is the liberalism there, or can they swing over to a conservative traditionalist point of view if they need to?

SCANLON: Well, they could if they chose to, but that is — in recent years, that has not been their desire. If you watched them this past year during the election cycle, they were incredulous.

They had vans going through the key states. I think there were 18 in number and — having rallies for seniors on — it was a pure, you know, Senator John Kerry approach to the issues.

O'REILLY: I didn't know that. Were they campaigning actively, the AARP, for Kerry? I didn't know that.

SCANLON: Well, it — no, it was — it was done as a nonpolitical event. However, when you saw the issues that they were raising and the positions that they were taking, they were al pro-Kerry, as they did in their magazine, in their November-December issue.

O'REILLY: Well, yes. Guess who's on the cover of the latest magazine. Our pal Richard Gere.

I — but that's how I got on to this story, you guys, because, as I said in the "T Points," you know, we pitched them, hey, do a story on "O'Reilly Factor for Kids" because the grandparents are going to want to buy them for their grandchildren and this and that, and they were — they weren't like, well, we'll think about. Thanks for calling, Bill. They were going no! I was like whoa! You know, what was that all about?

Mr. Van Atta, they don't get any money, the AARP, from any government agencies or anything. This is for-profit, right?

VAN ATTA: Well, it used to get 10s of millions of dollars and, in fact, still do. When it was questioned some years ago, it was split off into another organization that — to keep their tax status, their nonprofit status. They actually once negotiated the largest tax settlement in the history of the United States they owed so much.

SCANLON: Oh, they...

VAN ATTA: What always bothers me, Bill, is that — about them is they're an illegitimate lobbying organization. As Terry said, the members don't know what they want at all. They don't — I mean, they may get some of the information, but they get very little.

They have 35 million members supposedly. Actually, only 24 million because the spouses are free. So they don't even pay the $12.50 a year to have some voice in Washington.

Samuel Clemens was once a member, whom you know as Mark Twain. They sent a membership application to him, and they filled it out in Hartford, Connecticut, the memorial house there, and said that he was born in 1835, and they got the AARP membership card back.

O'REILLY: Yes. Well, look, the AARP is a very effective organization in marketing, but I am worried about public money going into this organization, Mr. Scanlon. Do you know any that does?

SCANLON: Oh, they do get government money.

O'REILLY: Do they?

SCANLON: Currently, they have a $50 million grant from the Department of Labor for a seniors employment program that costs over $7,000 per head to operate. These are various...

VAN ATTA: And they also get money for a large tax program — taxpayer assistance — I mean, tax assistance to the elderly.

SCANLON: That's correct.

O'REILLY: OK. So they do — they do get some federal funds flowing in there, and then their profit margin must be enormous on an $800-million- a-year gross.

SCANLON: Well, they have all kinds of businesses that they run.

O'REILLY: Yes. Insurance and...

SCANLON: They're primarily a business entity.

O'REILLY: Now...

VAN ATTA: It's about to go up. They just signed with Home Depot. They're going to start being the "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval for Home Depot products and take royalties from them, probably 10s of millions of dollars.

O'REILLY: Yes. I mean, these guys are all over the place.

VAN ATTA: They are.

O'REILLY: But how effective are they in Washington? I mean, are they powerful? Do the politicians fear them, Mr. Van Atta?

VAN ATTA: I think they're overrated because I think the politicians understand just who they don't represent, that they primarily represent the Washington office and some fine-thinking people, but — who are primarily aiming at assisting those who cannot afford AARP membership, the indigent and the old — the poor elderly.

O'REILLY: Well, what is it? Like 35 bucks a year or something like - - they're going to lose a lot of members.

SCANLON: It's $12.50. $12.50 a year.

O'REILLY: $12.50 a year, so it's like they — they just want to sell you the stuff.

SCANLON: Thirty bucks for three years.

O'REILLY: Right. They want to sell you their stuff. But, look, they're going to lose a lot of membership after this — and we did it on the radio today, too — exposition because they won't come on at all to explain, you know, how they started drifting left or where they are.

And I don't think the folks mind if AARP said, you know, we favor this, that and the other thing, but to try to hide it, which I really think they're trying to do, Mr. Scanlon — I think they're trying to hide their left-wing agenda.

SCANLON: Oh, without question. Their average member, as I said earlier, joins for the hotel discounts. They have no idea what they're — what bills they're promoting in Congress.

VAN ATTA: Historically, Bill, every time they take a stand that the public knows about and their own members, they lose tons of members. Last year, at least 45,000 from supporting the Medicare prescription drug billion.

Many more back when they — in the 11th-hour support of Clinton's health-care reform and catastrophic care back in 1989. So they know if they take a position that that's not why people join the organization, and people leave, and they will lose a lot of money.

O'REILLY: No, they're going — they're going to get hammered tonight, and...

VAN ATTA: They will get hammered.

O'REILLY: And the younger people should care about this because the AARP just wants to raise taxes like crazy. I mean, it's every kind of tax they want to deliver, you know, entitlements for their membership.

Gentlemen, thanks very much. We appreciate your point of view again.

VAN ATTA: Thank you.

O'REILLY: We are here for you, AARP. If you want to come on in here and tell us where we're wrong, we're happy to have you anytime.

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