Berkowitz: Viguerie's Army Attacks Social Security
Viguerie's Army Attacks Social Security
USA Next, an organization founded as the United Seniors Association in 1991, backs Bush in battle to privatize Social Security
By Bill Berkowitz
In their new book, America's Right Turn: How The Conservatives Used New And Alternative Media To Take Power, Richard Viguerie -- the right wing king of direct mail -- and co-author David Franke describe how the printing press played a pivotal role in the battle between Lutherans and Catholics in the 16th century: "The revolution of 1517 did not begin... when Martin Luther posted his controversial 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg... The revolution came in the weeks following Luther's posting... as his arguments spread across Europe with a rapidity never before seen, and reached the lay public -- beyond the clerical community -- that until this point had been precluded from involvement in theological issues... .That was the revolution, and it was a revolution wrought by the printing press."
Viguerie and Franke maintain that the Lutheran-Catholic struggle was the "world's first media war" and one of the "enduring lessons about using the media" is "how important it is to be first." With more than 2 billion letters sent out by clients and front groups during his forty year career, Vigueries has always believed in striking early and often.
"The American Revolution" writes author Paul Johnson in A History of the American People, "was the first event of its kind in which the media played a salient role -- almost a determining one -- from first to last. Americans were a media conscious people. They had a lot of newspapers and publications, and were getting more every month." With the availability of cheap printing presses and access to them by "inflammatory writers... there was no... possibility of putting down the media barrage in the courts by successful prosecutions for seditious libel."
Viguerie and Franke draw a straight line from the "media revolutions" of 1517 and 1776 to "our modern world of mass communications and ever-faster communications." Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther's bold proclamation, and almost two-hundred and thirty years after the American Revolution, USA Next, an organization founded by Viguerie in 1991 under the name United Seniors Association, launched its own media campaign in support of privatizing Social Security. USA Next's new campaign -- called "Stop Scaring Seniors NOW!" -- also attacks the AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons).
USA Next kicked off the campaign with an outrageous advertisement currently making the rounds on the Internet and which has appeared on a number of national and local television news programs. In the ad, USA Next places a soldier next to a gay couple. The couple's image has a green checkmark on it while the picture of a US soldier has a red "X" across it. Below the photos is the phrase "The REAL AARP Agenda." (You can find the advertisement here.)
Recently, USA Next's chairman and chief executive, Charles W. Jarvis -- who once worked for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- and its national chairman, entertainer Art Linkletter, have appeared on the Fox News Channel several times.
USA Next has a long history of using "dishonest tactics," and trying to scare the bejesus out of America's senior citizens. According to a 1992 New York Times story, the organization "bombard[ed] the elderly with tens of millions of solicitations, generating millions of dollars in fees for his [Viguerie's] private companies."
A new report posted on the Web site of There Is No Crisis takes a close look at the history and recent activities of the USA Next: "In August 2003, Health and Human Services fined United Seniors over half a million dollars for deceptive mailing practices, including misleading senior citizens into believing that United Seniors' solicitations were official government communications; The GAO determined in 1997 that United Seniors was guilty of 'misinformation' for claiming that senior citizens couldn't contract for medical treatment outside the Medicare system"; and "United Seniors has been investigated multiple times by state Attorney Generals and federal grand juries for using exaggerations and distortions to extort money from senior citizens to fund partisan conservative activism."
The United Seniors Association, now USA Next, was founded as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization "to assume debt from an earlier, 1990, Viguerie creation, the for-profit Retired Americans Legislative Lobby, Inc.," the report states. The organization worked on behalf of Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court and later turned its attention to the economic agenda of President Bill Clinton. "Before Clinton even introduced his economic plan, United Seniors mailed out an opposition letter; in March 1993, it mailed out two million copies of a "special report" that accused Clinton of wanting to raise taxes on poor seniors."
In an effort to undermine Clinton' health care plan, the organization "helped create" the National Coalition Against Rationing Health. Over the course of its campaign, it sent out "more than 25 million pieces" of mail, and in 1993, it raised $5.3 million in donations, "only to plow more than $4.2 million back into fund raising mail," the report states.
During its first few years United Seniors endorsed 'privatizing' Medicare, worked with the Republican-controlled House to implement Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, supported the defunding of the Legal Services Corporation, and tried to "provide a 'conservative alternative' to the AARP."
In subsequent years, under the name "A.L.A.R.M." -- Americans Lobbying Against Rationing of Medical Care -- United Seniors sent out direct mail packages warning about "Medicare rationing." After the 1998 elections United Seniors joined the National Association of Manufacturer's Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, "to push for privatization of Social Security." The following year, the group joined in a coalition with PhRMA, Citizens for Better Medicare. According to the There Is No Crisis Report, "This would start a process where lawyer Curtis Herge would ease United Seniors away from its Viguerie-inspired direct mail roots and toward big industry donations."
By the time George W. Bush took office in 2000, United Seniors turned its attention to supporting Bush's appointments -- it "spearhead[ed] a coalition in support of John Ashcroft's nomination for the Attorney Generalship" -- and the president's tax cut agenda. Charlie Jarvis, who worked on Gary Bauer's failed run for the presidency, replaced Sandra Butler as new President and CEO of United Seniors. In the first year of the Bush Administration, United Seniors went to bat for Bush by forming an "Enron front group, the 21st Century Energy Project, set up by Ed Gillespie to promote President Bush's energy plan," which included supporting "drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.
Two years ago, United Seniors turned its attention toward Social Security. In late 2003, Jarvis "demand[ed] that Congress address the deepening crisis of Social Security" and he accused AARP of "dropp[ing] out Social Security modernization." According to There Is No Crisis report, the organization "came out strongly in favor of a plan created by the Institute for Policy Innovation's Peter Ferrera. They also found time to attack Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, stock option expensing, John Kerry's 'wishing away the Social Security crisis,' the movie The Day After Tomorrow, class action suits, the McCain-Lieberman bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and efforts to reduce mercury exposure. Much of its anti-environmental activism took place under the coalition name 'United for Jobs.'"
USA Next is dedicating 2005 to "dynamiting" AARP, hoping to bring 1 million AARP members into its fold. On Bill O'Reilly's Fox News program, Jarvis said "there's never been a tax increase [AARP] didn't love, there's never been a tax cut they didn't hate, and they are definitely against traditional values." While Jarvis may be willing to spend upwards of $10 million to attack AARP, by crafting the soldier/gay couple ad he has been able to garner valuable face time on television for free. According to There Is No Crisis, USA Next has hired the strategists responsible for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry during last year's presidential campaign, Chris LaCivita, Rick Reed, a partner at Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, Creative Response Concepts, and Regnery Publishing.
Hiring on the folks that crafted the Swift Boat Veterans attack on John Kerry could prove to be a plus in terms of their ability to generate buzz and publicity, but it could also be a negative, as people may be growing tired of their truth-impaired act. One thing is certain; the production of outrageous ads will definitely increase their exposure via the mainstream media as well as through the vast right wing media network.
"The right wing is much more powerful across the board in the media than are liberals or the left, whether we are discussing radio, TV or the internet," John Stauber, a founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, wrote in an e-mail. Stauber argued that the right is "more powerful on the internet because they operate within the overarching right wing echo chamber." While "Moveon.org can reach millions via email, its campaigns don't echo and reverberate reaching tens of millions through Limbaugh, Scarborough, O'Reilly, and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal."
Stauber pointed out "the brilliant way the right wing used 527 groups in the past election," as an example of their reach. "The pro-Kerry forces thought they had the 527 political battlefield to themselves. Then the Republicans pulled out their check books and hired their PR operatives, who charged in with just as much money and much nastier and more effective messages, as demonstrated by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth internet and TV campaign which just hammered Kerry in swing states."
In 1517, as Viguerie and Franke write in their book, Martin Luther had a "secret weapon"; the printing press. By the time of the American Revolution the printing press was no longer a secret, so the task was "harnessing...the... technology on a more massive scale than had ever been attempted before." The rise of the right "from obscurity to attain[ing] power in the second half of the twentieth century" had to do with many things, including a steadfast grassroots, "the communications networks," and "the conservatives' new media weapon, which also served as their main source of funding." Through it all, Viguerie and Franke maintain, "the ruling liberal establishment, which sought first to ignore the conservatives, then to ridicule them, then to suppress them... refus[ed] to utilize the new media until it was too late."
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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.