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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)

"It was poverty on top of poverty. There were so many people who had given up. They just didn't care," said Loretta Augustine-Herron, who signed up to work with Obama. "I don't think he knew how bad it was until he came to our area. He had to have the tenacity and the patience to train us, and sometimes he had to be frustrated."

The Alinsky method, which Obama taught long afterward, is centered on one-on-one conversations. The organizer's task is to draw out people's stories, listening for their goals and ambitions -- "the stuff that makes them tick," one of his teachers told him. There he would find the self-interest that would spark activism.

Fellow community organizer Madeline Talbott said Obama mastered the approach. She remembers a successful 1992 voter-registration drive that he ran for Project Vote.

"He says things like, 'Do you think we should do this? What role would you like to play?' " said Talbott, chief organizer for Illinois ACORN. "Everybody else just puts out an e-mail and says, 'Y'all come.' Barack doesn't do that."

In time, Obama helped build and guide a small network of grass-roots groups that agitated for better playgrounds, improvements in trash pickup and the removal of asbestos from public housing. The city opened a jobs office in the tumbledown community as the lights were going out in nearby factories.

It was in those neighborhoods, Obama said in announcing for president, "that I received the best education I ever had, and where I learned the true meaning of my Christian faith." But by the time Obama moved on, Kellman said, he had seen "the limits of what could be achieved."

Obama spent three years at Harvard Law School, then returned to Chicago, where he taught constitutional law, handled civil rights cases and worked with community groups. He continued to teach the Alinsky philosophy, although he told the New Republic recently that "Alinsky understated the degree to which people's hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people's self-interest."

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a friend of Obama's, sees another difference. "If you read Alinsky's teachings, there are times he's confrontational. I have not seen that in Barack. He's always looking for ways to connect."

But when Obama first ran for office in 1995, he echoed Alinsky's credo -- and Clinton's thesis -- in arguing that politicians should not see voters "as mere recipients or beneficiaries."

"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," Obama told Hank De Zutter of the Chicago Reporter. "What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?"

What Obama and Clinton both learned, said Edelman, of the Children's Defense Fund, is that "community organizing is crucial but not enough."

Chicago organizer Gregory Galluzzo, Obama's former supervisor, who likes to describe himself as Alinsky's St. Paul, believes that Obama's exposure to the organizer's liturgy taught him that wisdom can emerge from the grass roots. "Hillary," he said, "leans toward the elites."

But Galluzzo believes that both candidates were influenced by their encounters with Alinsky and his methods. "By either one of them being in office," he said, "we're going to have a government that's more responsive to the ordinary people."

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