One of the weirder things about having a Chicagoan as president—and a White House dense with fellow Chicago power brokers, from Rahm to Axelrod to Bill Daley—has been the ways in which Chicago history gets pulled into the grain thresher of national discourse, and comes out looking exactly like you’d expect. Here’s the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen today (via):
The Gingrich I seek is not the man above but the one of big ideas. The term gets thrown around a lot, and Gingrich himself is apt to think his every idea is BIG. His mind is always in the tumble cycle. And even when he is spouting boilerplate, he can distance himself from his worn verbiage to say something fresh or provocative or ugly — it’s all the same to him. Out of nowhere, he has exhumed Saul Alinsky, whose fame is limited to university sociology departments, and yet whose name is so perfectly evocative of old-style radicalism, vaguely European in sound, that it fits Gingrich’s recent formulation, “people who don’t like the classical America.” Who dat, Newt?
The reference, although a tad obscure, is nevertheless intriguing. It shows that Gingrich is familiar with the late father of community organizing who died in 1972, and who by occupation and residence (Chicago) is suggestive of Barack Obama. Alinsky was no communist but he was a radical, and to have his name mentioned by a presidential candidate is just plain thrilling — also chilling. This is the bright and the dark side of Gingrich. He knows his stuff and often can’t stop from showing off.
The idea that Gingrich’s ongoing references to Alinsky came “out of nowhere” is preposterous. Just a quick Google Search for posts and articles during the previous campaign season about Obama and Alinsky should be enough to disabuse anyone of it. And it wasn’t limited to obscure right-wing blogs. Where specifically Gingrich got his new habit I have no idea, but it just as easily could have come from the McCain campaign:
Most of you, I bet, may be curious about the increased number of references lately from McCain campaign and surrogates about one Saul Alinsky as they try to make Barack Obama a risky presidential pick because of his associations.
I just heard Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) tell Andrea Mitchell on her MSNBC show that “Obama started out with Saul Alinsky.” Not true, if Bond was being literal. Alinsky, born in Chicago on Jan. 30, 1909 died on June 12, 1972 in Carmel, Calif. Obama was born in 1961.
Americans have a short attention span, none shorter than those of some of our political columnists. So Alinsky, like Olympic curling, comes back from obscurity every four years for the media to pretend to care about:
During a White House press briefing on Monday, Fox News’ Ed Henry asked Press Secretary Jay Carney if the White House displays a portrait of Saul Alinsky for its staff to look up to. Carney’s answer was less than direct, and would seem to hint that there just might be something to the Alinsky portrait rumors.
It gets even more amusing, as Rudy Giuliani goes after Newt Gingrich for being too much like Saul Alinsky in his insufficient deference to Mitt Romney’s business career:
“What the hell are you doing, Newt? I expect this from Saul Alinsky. This is what Saul Alinsky taught Barack Obama, and what you’re saying is part of the reason we’re in so much trouble right now,” said Giuliani on Fox News.
Newt Gingrich is no Alinsky, but is Obama? I have no idea if he has a portrait of Alinsky, but early on in his career, you could hear echoes of the legendary organizer in the beliefs of the young organizer, as captured by Hank de Zutter in 1995:
“The only principle that came through [the end of the Harold Washington administration] was ‘getting our fair share,’ and this runs itself out rather quickly if you don’t make it concrete.
“Now an agenda for getting our fair share is vital. But to work, it can’t see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It’s time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces—the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies.”
Compare that to Sidney Hyman’s description of Alinsky, quoted in Sanford Horwitt’s Let Them Call Me Rebel:
Going to work for Jane Addams at Hull-House was a romantic thing to do for a young, sensitive woman. [Their noble purpose was] to help, but it was always the Lady Bountifuls who were doing the helping. Now Saul comes along and turns it around and sort of sets the whole Hull-House thing on its head. He says he doesn’t want to be the hellfare worker, he doesn’t want the Lady Bountiful; he wants people to help themselves.
But by the 1990s, over 20 years after Alinsky’s death, this approach to community organizing was well-accepted; it would be unusual for a community organizer to not use the rhetoric of self-help in describing the purpose of the job.
Obama differered greatly, on the other hand, on the issue of temperament, as Daniel Libit found when he asked about “The End of Community Organizing in Chicago?”:
Galluzzo and others see Obama as at times being too conciliatory, having deviated from Alinsky’s model of stirring the pot. Obama “knew it, he was taught it, but he never embraced it,” says Galluzzo.
Galluzzo says that people idolized Obama, that some “just fell in love with him,” even though his success as an organizer was relatively slight. “If you would say at the heart of organizing is agitation, he wasn’t very good at it,” says Galluzzo. “He had no problem organizing a group of people to go downtown and protest. But agitation is what you apply to your own people, and you challenge them to accept responsibility. Alinsky was a cigar-smoking asshole who wanted to keep people at a distance from him so they would find their own feet.”
Calling his achievements “slight” simplifies Obama’s accomplishments as an organizer; after all, he organized one of the city’s most successful voting drives at the age of 31. But it’s clear Obama didn’t have the personality to be another Alinsky. As Horwitt writes:
[M]any of the clergy found it difficult to accept Alinsky’s theory that nobody operates outside of his self-interest, and many of them were troubled by his ideas about the use of conflict. If you are going to arouse people who are demoralized and apathetic—whether in a meat-packing plant or a community—you have to “agitate to the point of conflict,” he would say bluntly, “fan resentments” and “rub raw the resentments.”
Appealing to self-interest… stoking resentment… gosh, that sounds an awful lot like Newt Gingrich, the once-angriest man in Washington. And Alinsky—who was more focused on the structures and strategies of organizing than he was on structures of ideology—has been adopted, if uncomfortably, by the right wing:
Suddenly, the book was being touted as a way to beat the left at its own game by everyone from 69-year-old former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose nonprofit group FreedomWorks has emerged as a leading Washington bulwark for the tea party movement, to 25-year-old James O’Keefe, the self-styled activist investigative journalist who last year became a conservative hero for secretly recording employees of the liberal community-organizing group ACORN apparently offering advice on how to set up a brothel, to tea party leaders seeking to disrupt congressional town halls.
And adopted quite explicitly.
This is why I get upset when I read things like “out of nowhere, [Gingrich] has exhumed Saul Alinsky.” First of all, it’s not remotely true. Alinsky’s name has been a popular dog-whistle since Obama’s tenuous philosophical and professional connection to Alinsky—about as tangible as connecting me to Mike Royko—made Alinsky go viral back in 2008.
Second, Gingrich’s casting of Alinsky isn’t evidence of the grandiosity of his ideas, but of their limits. Among his Republican peers, it’s the Tea Party set that’s engaged most interestingly with Alinsky, with considerable success. That’s what actually surprised me when Gingrich resurrected the tired 2008 “Alinsky radical” trope: the base he’s trying to court has figured out much more sophisticated ways to use “Obama’s mentor” than as a sloppy throwaway line.
Related: An amazing 1972 Alinsky interview with Playboy, conducted shortly before his death. It’s not just a good look into Alinsky’s mind, it’s also very, very funny:
The problem you face with a heavy sentence is that you’re knocked out of action for too long and can lose your touch, and there’s also the danger that if you’re gone from the fight long enough, everybody will forget about you. Hell, if they’d given Jesus life instead of crucifying him, people would probably be lighting candles to Zeus today.
Photograph: cletch (CC by 2.0)