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For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

CHICAGO -- The job offer to "Miss Hillary Rodham, Wellesley College" was dated Oct. 25, 1968, and signed by Saul D. Alinsky, the charismatic community organizer who believed that the urban poor could become their own best advocates in a world that largely ignored them.

Alinsky thought highly of 21-year-old Rodham, a student government president who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She was in the midst of a year-long analysis of Alinsky's aggressive mobilizing tactics, and he was searching for "competent political literates" to move to Chicago to build grass-roots organizations.

Seventeen years later, another young honor student was offered a job as an organizer in Chicago. By then, Alinsky had died, but a group of his disciples hired Barack Obama, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate, to organize black residents on the South Side, while learning and applying Alinsky's philosophy of street-level democracy. The recruiter called the $13,000-a-year job "very romantic, until you do it."

Today, as Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton face off for the Democratic presidential nomination, their common connection to Alinsky is one of the striking aspects of their biographies. Obama embraced many of Alinsky's tactics and recently said his years as an organizer gave him the best education of his life. Clinton's interest was more intellectual -- she turned down the job offer -- and she has said little about Alinsky since their association became a favorite subject of conservative critics during her husband's presidency.

Alinsky was a bluff iconoclast who concluded that electoral politics offered few solutions to the have-nots marooned in working-class slums. His approach to social justice relied on generating conflict to mobilize the dispossessed. Power flowed up, he said, and neighborhood leaders who could generate outside pressure on the system were more likely to produce effective change than the lofty lever-pullers operating on the inside.

Both Obama and Clinton admired Alinsky's appeal for small-d democracy but came to believe that social progress is best achieved by working within the political system, and on a national scale.

Both went to law school, turned to a mix of courthouse and community remedies, and eventually moved into electoral politics.

Associates describe the candidates as combining streaks of idealism with a realistic appreciation of the politically possible, a mix the goal-oriented Alinsky would have recognized in himself. Like Alinsky, they fashioned political strategies defined more by coalitions and compromise than by the flashy but often hollow rhetorical pyrotechnics that Clinton, in her Wellesley honors thesis, called "the luxury of symbolic suicide."

Neither candidate would agree to be interviewed about Alinsky. But Marian Wright Edelman, the Children's Defense Fund leader, who knows Obama, worked closely with Clinton and spoke at Alinsky's funeral, said the organizer's allure was formidable, particularly in the energized 1960s.

"He was brilliant. He was working for underdogs. He was trying to empower communities, which we still need to do. He spoke plainly. He had his outrageous side, but he also had his pragmatic side," Edelman said. "Both Hillary and Barack reflect that understanding of community-organizing strategy. Both just know how to leverage power."

A Colorful Thesis Subject

Born in 1909 and bred in the politicized precincts of Chicago, Alinsky was a lifelong student of the dynamics of power who concluded that the city's famed Democratic machine remained unmoved unless pushed.

Alinsky took action with an organizing campaign in 1939 in Back of the Yards, the desperate Chicago meatpacking district depicted in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." Fashioning an unlikely alliance of unions, the Catholic church and others to win concessions from industry and government, he said organizers must listen to people's desires, then find leaders to carry the fight.

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.

All four thesis reviewers thought the paper was "wonderful," said Wellesley emeritus professor Alan Schechter, who described it as a pragmatic assessment of approaches to public policy problems. Schechter, a friend and political supporter of Clinton's, said her work revealed "an underlying idealism, but it's not a naive idealism."

For reasons Clinton and her staff will not discuss, the White House asked Wellesley to seal its copy of her thesis during her husband's presidency. By the mid-1990s, Republican foes regularly derided Clinton's thesis choice as evidence that she is a closet leftist. This month, Republican pollster Frank Luntz said on Fox News that Clinton treated Alinsky "almost like an icon," adding, "That's like holding up some of the people from Germany in the 1930s and '40s."

As first lady, Clinton occasionally lent her name to projects endorsed by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the Alinsky group that had offered her a job in 1968. She raised money and attended two events organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, an IAF affiliate.

IAF organizer Michael Gecan, who has met with Clinton several times, said her Wellesley work was often an icebreaker: "She would always say, 'I did my senior thesis on Alinsky.' "

As Alinsky biographer Sanford D. Horwitt put it: "Hillary is clearly aware of Alinsky's successors and the work they do. I think it's all to the good."

Clinton's 2003 memoir, "Living History," devotes a single paragraph to Alinsky, whom she describes as "a colorful and controversial figure who managed to offend almost everyone." She wrote that she agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas, "particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves," but that she rejected his job offer because of a "fundamental disagreement."

"Alinsky said I would be wasting my time," Clinton recalled, "but my decision was an expression of my belief that the system could be changed from within."

Organizing in Chicago

Community organizing, for Clinton principally an academic exercise, was more complex for Obama when he arrived in Chicago in 1985 to work with the Developing Communities Project, an offshoot of the Alinsky network. His experience became an emotional and visceral exploration of the roots of urban African American decay and his own identity.

Times had changed. The '60s were over. Chicago had a black mayor, and Alinsky was gone, dead of a heart attack in 1972. But his work and the fundamentals of his philosophy survived on the far South Side.

Obama stepped into the Alinsky tradition after deciding "mainly on impulse," he has said, at age 21 to become a community organizer. His passion ran to romantic visions of the civil rights struggle.

"He wanted to make that kind of contribution and didn't know how to do it," said Gerald Kellman, who hired Obama. "There's that side of him that's strongly idealistic, very much a dreamer, and this kind of work attracts that kind of person. It isn't just that we're going to change things, but we're going to change things from the grass roots."

Obama spent three roller-coaster years trying to build a new source of power in the Altgeld Gardens housing project and the Roseland community, maneuvering among neighbors, church leaders and politicians who did not always welcome the encounters.

"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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