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Joanna Weiss

Grand ambitions

Betty White and a pair of Concord activists prove that age and humor can deliver cutting-edge change

From left, Betty White, Jean Hill, and Peggy Brace. (Andy Friedman for the Boston Globe) From left, Betty White, Jean Hill, and Peggy Brace.
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 9, 2010

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THERE MAY be nothing sweeter in all of pop culture than the harmony between the hipsters and Betty White.

The online movement that coalesced around the 88-year-old actress this winter — between the Facebook page demanding that White host “Saturday Night Live’’ and the string of viral-video tributes — culminated last night in White’s actual hosting gig. (At press time, it was expected to be triumphant, since this is Betty White we’re talking about.)

The cult of Betty White revolves around two jokes: that White is deeply attractive to hunky young men, and that beneath her America’s-Oldest-Sweetheart exterior, she’s a snarling, potty-mouthed diva. In one “SNL’’ promo spot, she mused that she might someday host the Oscars, then turned to some 20-somethings with laptops and growled, “Type, nerds!’’

The humor works because we trust that White really is nice — and because her sense of irony does the hipsters proud and the oldsters even prouder. She’s proving that old ladies can be cool. Relevant. Powerful, even.

But she has some competition. In fusty Concord, the sudden new center of the grass-roots environmental movement, old ladies are actually trying to change the world.

Peggy Brace, 76, convinced Town Meeting to bar restrictions on the use of clotheslines, and Jean Hill, 82, is the mastermind of Concord’s new ban on sales of bottled water. They share White’s energy, her twinkle-eyed spirit, and her sense of canny self-awareness; when I clumsily told Hill that she and Brace were “in the same demographic,’’ she shot back, “Yes. We’re both interested in saving energy.’’

They’re interested in that, yes, but the motivation goes deeper. It’s about how best to live your life when the kids are long grown and the grandkids are self-sufficient. And when you’ve acquired a certain amount of wisdom about both motives and methods.

Brace had her own environmental epiphany in a not-so-unusual way: She saw Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth’’ and decided to act. But her approach is different from Gore’s, and from some younger folks who try to save the world through grand demonstrations and earnest, serious rhetoric. Brace seemed instinctively to know that — within the confines of Concord Town Meeting, at least — she could make her points better with charm. During her presentation, she shared doomsday statistics, but also toted an Uncle Sam poster with the caption “Uncle Sam Wants You to Line Dry.’’ And she sang: “The answer, my friends, is laundry blowin’ in the wind.’’

It could be that age affords a certain freedom — not just to say what you want in a public forum, but to wage fights in a way that feels achievable. The brilliance of Brace’s “right-to-dry’’ measure isn’t that it expects to solve a problem in one fell swoop, but that it makes people think about the small, individual steps they can take to make a difference.

The same goes for Hill’s small-scale attack on bottled water. Poland Spring and Dasani will surely survive, but the absurdities of the bottled water industry might linger in the forefront of people’s minds.

A letter-writer to the Globe last week dismissively called the bottled-water measure “the work of a senior citizen with apparently way too much time on her hands.’’ In a sense, he’s right. Hill has always had an activist streak; at 16, she tried to get a New York union to improve the lot of workers in a parachute factory. But she turned her attention to raising four children and working a range of jobs. Then, after she retired, she decided she still had work to do. “When I go,’’ she says, “I want to be all used up.’’

That’s a sentiment that ought to make the hipsters proud, and apparently, they are. At a local grocery store recently, Hill got hugs from some young people who said she had looked great on TV. Now, she and Brace are plotting their next targets. Air pollution? Noise pollution? Concord needs to get ready.

“Maybe I’ll do those leaf-blowers. They are something else,’’ Brace mused the other day. If they’re really committed to change, hipster activists ought to take notes.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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