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.