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AARP critic anything but retiring

Sen. Alan Simpson lopes along the Capitol corridors, heading toward the Senate chamber for a vote. At the sight of a gaggle of reporters, he throws his back flat against the wall, arms spread, and theatrically tiptoes along.

Call it the Simpson slide, a little maneuver the Wyoming Republican pulls out when he knows his tart tongue has catapulted him into the headlines. This time Simpson has waded into the dangerous world of elderly politics, taking on the largest senior citizens' group in the nation.

Other lawmakers would blanch at the thought, Simpson brags. He relishes the well-publicized battle with the American Association of Retired Persons.

Hours after his face-to-face showdown with the leaders of the AARP, Simpson is still fielding press questions. An invitation to speak to readers in the Tampa Bay area is irresistible.

"St. Petersburg?" he says with a grin. "That's where all those damn coots are."

And with that, the balding, 63-year-old Simpson is off and running.

"I joined the AARP when I came of age, 55 back then," he begins his tale, all 6 feet 7 of him hunched conspiratorially over his interviewer. "I started getting their magazine; looked like Smithsonian. All the sleek, silver-haired cats playing golf."

From the start, Simpson found inconsistencies. The magazine's marketing appeal, in his view, says: "You'll be able to reach one of the most affluent sectors of the economy.

"But the editorial pitch is: "America is cheating the elderly.' It's as if people over 60 are foraging in alleys for their very sustenance."

Simpson can do more than just crow about what he thinks the AARP is doing wrong. He is a subcommittee chairman on the powerful Finance Committee. From that perch, he opened an investigation into the AARP, its tax-exempt status, lobbying activities and business practices.

"What this is really about is Medicare," says AARP lobbyist John Rother. He and other AARP leaders have led the charge against Republican plans to cut the rate of growth in Medicare from 10 percent to 5 percent a year. The proposal would trim $270-billion from the health program for the elderly over the next seven years.

"AARP, in doing their advocacy work, should not be taken out to the whipping post," says Dixie Horning, executive director of the Gray Panthers.

Horning says she has no doubt Simpson's aim is to injure the one influential lobby that could thwart the GOP's planned Medicare cuts:

"You've got to find somebody to blame when you're going to inflict pain."

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Simpson is not new to this anti-AARP crusade. For years, he says, his suspicions grew. While sitting through hearings of the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform, his distrust of the group that claims 33-million members reached fever pitch.

"They preach a litany of greed," he says, adding that today's retirees are draining the government coffers. Referring to his three adult children and two grandchildren, Simpson says: "If the AARP position is to prevail, they will have nothing when they're my age."

At the start of this Congress, Simpson lost his No. 2 leadership post, a stunning defeat that has left him both bitter and liberated. He has since thrown himself into pet issues, cracking down on immigration and what he calls "veteran-o-mania." But it is the Simpson-led AARP investigation that has taken center stage.

With little support from his colleagues, Simpson has rehashed a litany of familiar complaints against the group. He has charged:

More than half the AARP's $382-million budget comes from commercial activities such as car rentals, mail-order drugs and insurance.

The non-profit group spends $63-million on salaries and $17-million on its office lease.

The AARP collects $86-million in federal grants to run tax-advice and job-placement programs for retirees.

In separate settlements with the postal service and Internal Revenue Service, the AARP paid $2.8-million and $135-million, respectively.

"If you're gonna make that kind of money and be a big business," he says, "step up to the plate like big boys and pay your taxes."

Although Simpson describes his role as a lonely mission, it is more akin to top billing in a one-man show.

"People say I am out to get the AARP," he says. "I am a single, emaciated senior senator from Wyoming trying to intimidate them or silence them in the Medicare debate. What a chuckle."

In two hearings and with access to internal memos, Simpson uncovered no new information about the AARP. The most startling discovery was evidence that an AARP staffer had written to notify her superiors she had "wangled" her way into a Simpson news conference reserved for reporters.

Two Democratic senators applauded Simpson's efforts to close tax loopholes for non-profit groups, but question why he has singled out one group for such personal attention.

"Are we here to indict the AARP? Are we here to embarrass AARP?" says Arkansas Sen. David Pryor. "If we're going to do this, let's do it all the way."

Other critics suggest Simpson's AARP attack is really a way to protect the GOP's flank on planned Medicare cuts.

Usually, Simpson denies his hearings are related to the budget battle. But in an interview on Nightline this week, he conceded a connection.

"Anyone under 50 is gonna be devastated by what's happening to this country, and here is an organization that won't let us play with Social Security, won't let you play with Medicare," he said. "Yes, that's how I speak from the heart on this."

Republicans have kept Simpson and his investigation at arm's length, leaving the party in a win-win position. If Simpson discredits the AARP, the group's budget attacks will carry less weight. If he fails, only Simpson will be tarnished.

Describing the AARP as an "arm of the Democratic National Committee," Majority Whip Trent Lott says: "When people find out more about AARP, they may help us."

The AARP's Washington officials say no one _ not even the cantankerous Simpson _ will distract them from their lobbying effort on Medicare. But the director of the Wyoming AARP says Simpson has sullied the group's image.

"He's doing great harm to AARP," says Helen Fitch. "People trust him and if he's saying it, there must be some problem. We're having a very difficult time getting our story out. Every time he opens his mouth, he's in the press."

Still, the Medicare budget battle is new this year, and Simpson says he has long had a problem with the AARP.

"The disagreement began on the issue of long-term care," says the AARP's Rother, who has lobbied Simpson for years. In meetings, Simpson frequently mentions that both his elderly parents are in nursing homes, treatment that costs the wealthy Simpson family in the six figures.

"It's as though he's saying, "By God, we paid the price and everyone else should too,'

" says Rother.

Some praise Simpson as a man bold enough to speak the unspeakable.

"He's an honest straight shooter," says Cheyenne Mayor Leo Pando, a Democratic fan of the three-term senator. "That's the way folks in Wyoming are; just tell it like it is."

Former Sen. John Danforth, the Missouri Republican who chaired the entitlements commission, says Simpson is one of the few politicians willing to take risks in the name of good public policy.

"Anybody who says the emperor has no clothes is not very popular with the emperor," says Danforth. "It's clear these issues of Social Security and Medicare are total losers politically. He's very courageous."

But others say his increasingly personal, vitriolic attacks overshadow whatever value his ideas might hold.

"Sometimes he's too fearless," says Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican with a pit-bull reputation of his own. The two frequently spar over veterans' benefits. "I would cite my father who was a World War I veteran; that was the only thing I could find that would calm him down."

In the past, Simpson has been forced to apologize for embarrassing attacks and out-of-line comments. It was Simpson, during the televised Supreme Court nomination hearings of Clarence Thomas, who made references to Professor Anita Hill's "proclivities."

With his third term set to expire in 1996, Simpson is coy about re-election plans. He says he has plenty of work yet to do.

Even if the AARP flap dies down, senior citizens haven't heard the last of the man from Cody, Wyoming. His next target is Social Security.