Posted at 03:40 PM ET, 01/24/2012

Saul Alinsky: His political influence exhumed

If you’re watching any Republican debates this political cycle (and there are plenty of opportunities, with a debate seemingly every week), you’ve probably heard one name pop up over and over again: Saul Alinsky.
Saul Alinsky is pictured in February 1966 on a street on Chicago's south side where he organized the Woodlawn area to battle slum conditions. (AP )
It’s not just in debate rhetoric. Alinsky has been mentioned 80-plus times over the span of 60 years’ worth of Washington Post reporting, according to a database search, but the terms have changed over the years.

Alinsky, a community organizer in Chicago and the author of the seminal work “Rules for Radicals,” was most recently mentioned in our reporting in a feature story by The Post’s Jason Horowitz:

Sanford D. Horwitt, who wrote a biography of Alinsky, “Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy,” said [Republican presidential hopeful Newt] Gingrich is “speaking to, first and foremost, tea party activists and leaders at the local level who know all about Saul Alinsky and think he is sinister and evil and the mastermind of Barack Obama’s rise to the White House. It’s a wonderful shorthand to a lot of people out there, more than you would think.”
Horwitt said that his “Saul Alinsky” Google alert had produced a constant stream of blog posts, television references and essays over the past four years. The vast majority of Alinsky references online, he said, attempt to characterize Obama as a secret minion of [a] man he never met.

Contrast those negative references from tea party activists to the comments made by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama during their 2008 contest in the Democratic primary. The two candidates used Alinsky’s name to appeal favorably to the unions and organizers who revered him.

Thanks to Obama’s background as a community organizer in Chicago, he was able to draw comparisons between his work and Alinsky’s. Hillary Clinton wrote her college thesis on the man.

Incidentally, Gingrich’s comments also contrast with the favorable 1946 review of a book by Alinsky, the first mention of him in Washington Post archives. In her review of “Reveille for Radicals,” Agnes E. Meyer, wife of former publisher Eugene Meyer and great-grandmother of current publisher Katharine Weymouth, introduces the emerging Midwestern community activist to her Eastern Seaboard audience thusly:

A native of Chicago, he first helped the inhabitants of that city’s packing-house district, called Back of the Yards, to seek health, happiness and security through the democratic methods of a People’s Organization and a People’s Council.
“We the people, will work out our own destiny” is the slogan of this orderly revolution. Make no mistake. This people’s movement is as orderly as all genuine democracy. Its history and the by-laws appended to this volume prove it. But it is also as revolutionary as all genuine democracy from the days of Tom Paine to Saul Alinsky.

She later continued:

“What is the “destiny” for which the People’s Organizations are fighting? They are fighting in serried ranks for better homes, better health and better education for their children, for religious and racial tolerance, and greater economic security. Above all, they want a voice in the government of neighborhood, the city, the Nation, the world. Their program as Alinsky says “is limited only by the horizon of humanity itself.”

By Justin Bank  |  03:40 PM ET, 01/24/2012

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