Horace Deets is not exactly a household name outside the nation’s capital.
Fortune magazine calls him “Washington’s second most powerful man.” But Fortune has it wrong, says Richard Thau, executive director of the Generation X advocacy group Third Millennium. Thau grudgingly calls him “the most powerful man in America.”
As executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons, he heads what is generally considered the most influential lobbying group in Washington, outranking the AFL-CIO, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition.
“He tells the president of the United States what he can and can’t do,” Thau says. “Ask Bill Clinton why he hasn’t touched Social Security or Medicare in the first five years of his administration. Because he’s scared to death of AARP.”
Deets doesn’t exactly tell the president what to do, but almost everyone in Washington wants to be Deets’ friend or at least not his enemy. For at any moment, Deets could unleash the political torrent of the 32-million-member AARP.
Granted, many of those $8-a-year members are in AARP for its travel discounts, prescription drugs and glossy magazine, not for its politics. But to understand the scope of AARP’s empire, consider:
In the United States, only the Roman Catholic Church surpasses AARP’s numbers. About one of every five voters in the nation belongs to AARP - and seniors are more likely to vote than younger Americans.
At the helm is Deets, 59, a former Catholic priest from South Carolina who joined AARP’s staff in 1975. Deets was named executive director in 1988. He makes $346,577 a year.
“I always wanted to be director of AARP from the time I was about 3,” Deets says jokingly.
Not surprisingly, members of Congress are careful not to cross AARP, and White House officials regularly consult the association before the president announces initiatives of concern to its members, especially anything affecting Medicare or Social Security. For example, before Clinton announced his proposal last month to let some people as young as 55 qualify for Medicare, his staff consulted Deets’ staff and got the nod.
“We had urged them to consider it because there is a growing problem of lack of insurance for people under the age of 65,” Deets says. “We added our voice, saying we think it’s a good idea.”
When AARP speaks, Washington listens. And its silence can be just as powerful. A few years ago, Clinton sought AARP’s endorsement of his doomed plan for health care coverage for all Americans. AARP refused to deliver.
“We had to reflect what we were hearing from our members,” Deets says. “And so we never endorsed it.”
Still, Deets says he can’t recall a time when AARP had better access to the White House. During one visit, Deets told Clinton he was the first president in Deets’ memory to ask AARP representatives over. Clinton was surprised. “He said, ‘What was the matter with the others? They couldn’t count?”’
AARP calls itself strictly nonpartisan. On Capitol Hill, though, some politicians privately criticize AARP as too eager to guard Medicare and Social Security for its members at the expense of future generations. And Republicans fret that AARP often aligns itself with the Democrats.
“Do any of you care … about your grandchildren?” former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., once asked AARP leaders. Simpson also has called AARP “the canniest old cats in the jungle.”
AARP has begun to seriously ponder the baby boom generation, the first members of which started turning 50 - AARP eligibility age - in 1996. Deets agrees that Medicare and Social Security will have to change to survive but says, “I’m appalled at the scare tactics people are using now, calling Social Security an imminent wreck, impending disaster, bankruptcy, belly-up. Those are lies.”
In the meantime, critics of AARP say the group is hanging back instead of leading on Medicare and Social Security reforms.
“They wait and see which way the wind is blowing….,” said retired Rep. Harry Johnston, D-Boynton Beach, Fla. “They’ve got the power and they refuse to use it for fear that they’re going to offend some of their people.”
But as powerful as AARP is, Deets has a low profile in some quarters of the Capitol. Johnston says he never met him. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fort Lauderdale, elected to Congress 18 years ago and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, doesn’t recall meeting him, either. Still, AARP’s opinion “means an awful lot to me,” Shaw says.
Deets, who has a master’s degree from Catholic University, comes across as earnest and reflective. “People talk about how powerful we are. I reflect upon our agenda, the things that we support. They tend to have broad-based public support.”
To “keep from being a mile wide and an inch deep,” Deets says, AARP’s agenda focuses on four areas of critical concern to members: health and long-term care, economic security and work issues, consumer issues and independent living.
“You either adapt or you die,” says Deets, who essentially is the CEO of AARP. “Size doesn’t mean anything. It’s not an indicator of success by itself, and it’s no guarantee of continued success,” he says. “Dinosaurs - size didn’t save them.”