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For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone

Saul D. Alinsky, the Chicago community organizer whose ideas intrigued and influenced Hillary Rodham and Barack Obama as they began their careers.
Saul D. Alinsky, the Chicago community organizer whose ideas intrigued and influenced Hillary Rodham and Barack Obama as they began their careers. (Associated Press)

An organizer must "fan the latent hostilities," he wrote in his 1946 handbook "Reveille for Radicals," and "he must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them."

A master of the attention-getting rhetorical flourish, Alinsky once pressed Eastman Kodak to hire more black workers, saying the only thing the company had done about race was introduce color film. Yet he practiced "a method that sounds more radical than it actually was," said Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, who called Alinsky "a tactician more than he was an ideologist."

Alinsky, unimpressed by dogma, believed in coalitions linked by clear-eyed calculations of self-interest. He focused on concrete local issues: bus routes, public housing, jobs. To him, the fashionable cry of the 1960s that power comes from the barrel of a gun was "absurd." To mark his differences with the bomb-throwers, he subtitled his second book "A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals."

The calamitous events of that decade turned Clinton away from the GOP of her Park Ridge, Ill., youth. Arriving at Wellesley, she became president of the Young Republicans, but she soon drifted left. She said that 1968, the year she met Alinsky in Chicago, was a watershed in her "personal and political evolution," marked by the escalation of the Vietnam War and the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

When she returned for her senior year that September, Clinton decided to write a thesis on the war on poverty. Her adviser suggested Alinsky. She called her 92-page work, after a line in a T.S. Eliot poem, " 'There Is Only the Fight . . . ': An Analysis of the Alinsky Model."

Much of Alinsky's agenda, she wrote after interviewing him three times, "does not sound 'radical.' " Even his tactics, she concluded, were often "non-radical, even 'anti-radical.' His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structures of our lives in order to realize them."

Among examples of Alinsky's methods, Clinton cited the 1961 decision to send 2,000 black Woodlawn community residents downtown en masse to register to vote. She mentioned activists picketing the suburban homes of slumlords and a mission to dump garbage outside the sanitation commission.

"In many cases," Clinton wrote, "the abrasive tactics paid off with the cancellation of double shifts in the schools, the increased hiring of Negroes by city businesses, growing responsiveness from the machine politicians, even some property repair."

Clinton believed that new federal poverty programs in the 1960s were a step backward because their architects neglected to listen to individual citizens -- the crux of the Alinsky model. The policies, she said, invited the poor "into the mainstream not through their participatory planning, but through their acquiescent participation."

The lesson was still on her mind years later. She told an interviewer shortly after Bill Clinton became president that government programs were too often administered from on high, with too little effect.

"I basically argued that [Alinsky] was right," Clinton told The Washington Post in 1993. "Even at that early stage, I was against all these people who came up with these big government programs that were more supportive of bureaucracies than actually helpful to people. You know, I've been on this kick for 25 years."

In the end, Clinton gave Alinsky mixed reviews, admiring his charisma and his goal of democratic equality while questioning the usefulness and staying power of a small-bore approach based on stirring up conflict in the inner city. She noted that Alinsky was crafting a fresh appeal to the potentially powerful middle class.

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