Saul Alinsky lives on in GOP rhetoric


Saul Alinsky is pictured on a street on Chicago's South Side in 1966. (AP Photo)
January 23, 2012

If it’s a Republican debate night, it’s time for a Saul Alinsky reference.

Alinsky, as anyone who has paid close attention to community organizing, Fox News or presidential politics in the past four years knows, is a liberal hero and conservative villain, best remembered for his theory of empowering the disenfranchised.

In 2008, he resurfaced as the subject of Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis at Wellesley College. The election of Barack Obama — who, like Alinsky, worked as a community organizer in Chicago — kept the Alinsky allusions alive. And now, nearly 40 years after the death of the populist forebear of 1960s campus activism, Newt Gingrich has revived him as a reliable line on the GOP presidential campaign trail.

“The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,” the former House speaker said Saturday night, after winning the South Carolina primary.

No novice when it comes to political language, Gingrich has mentioned Alinsky in campaign events throughout the primary season, including in one of the biggest addresses of his career. After Gingrich spoke Saturday, Arizona congressman and Gingrich supporter Trent Franks noted that the speech included “a lot of mechanics.”

Sanford D. Horwitt, who wrote a biography of Alinsky, “Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy,” said 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 the man he never met. At the same time, some conservative leaders — such as Richard K. Armey, the former House majority leader who is now president of the conservative activist group Freedomworks — have admired the organizer’s tactics, if not his politics.

Horwitt said that by referencing Alinsky in prime-time debates and primary-night acceptance speeches, Gingrich had become the progressive organizer’s greatest publicist.

“I love it,” Horwitt said. “I’m rooting for Newt to stay around.”

The Alinsky references are getting noticed in the White House.

During a White House briefing Monday, Ed Henry of Fox News asked Obama spokesman Jay Carney to “clear something up.”

“Newt Gingrich keeps saying on the campaign trail that the president’s vision comes from Saul Alinsky, the community organizer. I haven’t heard you asked about that today, and I am wondering is there some sort of portrait of him in the White House people look up to, or is this some — is this BS basically?” Henry said.

Carney took a shot at Gingrich’s reputation for bombast and said that while Obama’s “background as a community organizer is well documented” and “obviously contributed to who he is today,” it was part of a broader experience.

Carney noted that dropping the historical figure’s name helped Gingrich burnish his own credentials as a history heavyweight. Plus, Gingrich and Alinsky had a lot in common: Both men preferred generating press headlines as a means of pursuing power; Alinsky used the word “radical” in the titles of two of his books, and Gingrich uses the word approvingly in just about every other town hall meeting.

To the untrained ear, Gingrich’s Alinsky references might sound off-key. But throughout his career, Gingrich has used language specially honed for his target audience.

In 2010, the Library of Congress selected Gingrich’s GOPAC instructional tapes, which he used to train Republican politicians from 1986 to 1994, for inclusion in its National Recording Registry. The deciding factor was their success in “shaping political discourse.” (Other inductees that year included, Al Green’s 1971 hit “Let’s Stay Together,” recently crooned by Obama at a fundraiser, and De La Soul’s 1989 album
“3 Feet High and Rising.”)

One GOPAC memo indicated that Gingrich’s tapes would emphasize the importance of using language as a “key mechanism of control.”

“Who are we?” Gingrich asks in one of the first of the tapes. Titled “An America That Works, Side One,” it was recorded Dec. 18, 1990, at a seminar for Georgia incumbents. He then suggested language to evoke the “core definition on the political side of who we are.”

“Alinsky” is now one of Gingrich’s go-to words to describe what Republicans are not.

Born in 1909 in Chicago, Alinsky demonstrated a genius for organizing society’s downtrodden — often minorities and the poor — into powerful factions that exerted real political influence.

In his seminal work, “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals,” he offers his tactics as an antidote to the consolidation of power best articulated in Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

“ ‘The Prince’ was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. ‘Rules for Radicals’ is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away,” Alinsky wrote.

Alinsky preached that confrontation was a tool the Have-Nots should use to achieve that end. It’s one lesson Gingrich has seemingly learned from his preferred boogeyman.

“I obviously have a reputation for being confrontational,” Gingrich observed on his 1990 recording. As recent debates have demonstrated, that reputation has not changed in the intervening years.

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