Because I am approaching Geezerhood and seek to support organizations that I believe, rightly or wrongly, might fight to preserve social security, I have become a member of AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. That means I get their magazine, with reportedly the largest circulation in the world (over 22 million!), whose motto is “Feel Great. Save Money. Have Fun.” AARP has been moving down the age chain, seeking to recruit people in their late 40s and early 50s, and its magazine puts cool agesters like Clint Eastwood on the cover and offers features on Bruce Springsteen and salsa dancing. Here, aging is just a hoot.
The November/December issue was bad enough, featuring Jamie Lee Curtis and Betty White in a cover story about how to stay “hot.” But the January/February issue was the equivalent of getting an envelope with suspicious white powder on it: there, on the cover, was a full head shot of a smiling George W. Bush, with the headline “New life, no regrets” and just under it, in parentheses, “okay, just a few.” How cute.
Inside is an Andrew Wyeth-esque photo of Bush in a vast “Christina’s world” sweep of deep, loden-green, knee-high brush, hands in his pockets, looking down humbly at the earth in his everyman jeans and pure-as-the-driven-snow white shirt. The headline reads “What’s Next for George W. Bush?” Underneath, my husband stuck a post-it note that answered, simply, “The Gallows?!”
If AARP was seeking to generate a little buzz around the magazine, then it has succeeded. The “online community” is bristling with negative reaction, barely giving me an opportunity to comment on this outrage myself. One reader wrote, “Immediately upon receipt of the issue, I ripped the cover off, as I refuse to have the image of the most dreadful president in the history of the United States in my home. I am shocked, disappointed and disgusted that you would even consider having his picture on the cover. … My pet peeve is hypocrisy and you folks just carried the banner.” Amen sister. Another added, in an equally fabulous post: “Think of all the children coming of age under ‘W,’ who disparage intelligence and think lineage is the only way to achieve anything; who think loss of constitutional rights and freedoms are justifiable in the name of ‘security;’ who think torture is a legitimate means to an end; who think that American exceptionalism means we can do anything to anyone anywhere without concern of consequence. This is the legacy of George 43, and our nation will be burdened by it for generations. ‘W,’ and his administration, cannot be brought to justice soon enough … they should certainly not be rewarded for their crimes with cover photos and amiable editorials.”
Such posts, which vastly outweigh the “thank you so much for this fine profile” sort, have provoked, of course, a vehement response from the right. To wit, another reader: “For a long time we have refused to become members due to the far left propaganda b.s. from 95% of … your published stories.” Hmmm. By my count, 95 percent of their published stories are about losing weight, getting sleep, famous baby boomers not in rehab, and travelling to swanky resorts.
This story is, of course, part of the broader, sweeping PR campaign to rehabilitate W’s image a mere two years after his ignominious departure from the White House. The interviewer actually asked him, “What are your secrets for winning?” Regarding the war in Afghanistan, he explains that if we left, the Afghan women would suffer, and he and Laura “think it is in our nation’s interest that Afghan women – or any women around the world – not suffer.” Bush’s record on women’s rights speaks for itself.
So here, just like during the run-up to the 2000 election, we get a very honey-hued version of Bush, a good ole boy with a “friendly grin” who is humble and considerate enough, we are told, to scoop his dog’s poop off of his neighbor’s front yard. He wants “no more than to be a good friend and neighbor.” What matters to him most? “[T]hat I didn’t compromise my soul.” Well, maybe not yours, but the country’s.
Profiles like this, that emphasize personality, “values,” and the relationship with one’s dog – cynically illustrated with photos of Bush on his bike, or in a Haitian village with little brown babies – are designed to induce mass amnesia about the eight stolen years of the Bush administration. Fortunately, it seems that most of the golden-agers, despite our memory loss, aren’t buying.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.