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Hillary Clinton, Saul Alinsky and Lucifer, explained

Former presidential hopeful Ben Carson criticized Hillary Clinton's admiration of writer Saul Alinsky and warned against the progression of a secular agenda during a speech at the Republican National Convention July 19. (The Washington Post)

This post has been updated with details about how Clinton decided to write a thesis about Saul Alinsky.

Saul Alinsky and Lucifer made appearances at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night.

It's not clear who was supposed to be scarier.

In his prime-time speech, Ben Carson offered his own case against Hillary Clinton. It had a lot to do with tying her to Alinsky — and, by extension, the devil. Here's what he said:

Now, one of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors was Saul Alinsky. And her senior thesis was about Saul Alinsky. This was someone that she greatly admired and that affected all of her philosophies subsequently.

Now, interestingly enough, let me tell you something about Saul Alinsky. He wrote a book called, "Rules for Radicals." On the dedication page it acknowledges Lucifer, the original radical who gained his own kingdom. ...

This is a nation where every coin in our pocket, and every bill in our wallet says, "In God We Trust." So, are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that.

This isn't quite Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but it's the same concept. Clinton is bad, Carson argues, because one of "her heroes, her mentors" is Alinsky — a man who "acknowledges Lucifer."

There's a lot to unpack here. First, it is true that, in the front of his book, Alinsky does acknowledge Lucifer in what could be read as a positive way:

Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.

The paragraph is directly attributed to Alinsky. Carson's implication seems to be that Alinsky speaks favorably about the devil and that makes him toxic for Clinton.

Alinsky was a self-described radical, and this is indeed a provocative statement. It also appears to be something of a one-off; while Alinsky's book is all about "Rules for Radicals," he does not go on to further discuss this particular radical — Lucifer — and the example he might provide for other radicals.

Alinsky did offer other provocative comments that have led to of accusations of sympathy for the devil, so to speak. In a 1972 Playboy interview, he said that while he identifies as Jewish, he would choose to go to Hell. "Hell would be heaven for me," because it was full of "have-nots," he said. "They're my kind of people."

These passages form the basis for accusations that Alinsky was pro-Lucifer or even satanic.

But then we get to the next logical step Carson asks us to take — tying Clinton tightly to Alinsky.

If this all sounds familiar, it's because four years ago, it was the other recent Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, who was getting this treatment. Newt Gingrich during his 2012 campaign was fond of referring to Obama as a "Saul Alinsky radical." (Click that link if you still don't know who Alinsky is.) Back in 2008, Rudy Giuliani did it too.

Tying Clinton to Alinsky is pretty easy; she wrote her undergraduate thesis at Wellesley College about him and even interviewed him.

As the New York Times's Mark Leibovich explained after reviewing the thesis in 2007:

Ms. Rodham endorsed Mr. Alinsky’s central critique of government antipoverty programs — that they tended to be too top-down and removed from the wishes of individuals.

But the student leader split with Mr. Alinsky over a central point. He vowed to ‘rub raw the sores of discontent’ and compel action through agitation. This, she believed, ran counter to the notion of change within the system.

Carson describes Alinsky as one of Clinton's "heroes" and "mentors." Those terms are highly debatable, but Clinton was close enough to Alinsky that, in her 2003 book, "Living History," she mentioned turning down the offer to work with him after college.

I agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas, particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves. But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn't. Later, he offered me the chance to work with him when I graduated from college, and he was disappointed that I decided instead to go to law school. Alinsky said I would be wasting my time, but my decision was an expression of my belief that the system could be changed from within.

Clinton also brought Alinsky to Wellesley in 1969 to deliver a speech. And in her thesis, she refers to his "compelling personality" and “his exceptional charm," according the NBC's Bill Dedman, who also read the thesis in 2007.

But there's little evidence that Clinton was particularly close to the man. And indeed, her decision to write a thesis involving Alinsky wasn't her idea, her thesis adviser recently told The Washington Post.

Alan Schechter, who is now an emeritus professor at Wellesley in addition to a donor who has also campaigned for Clinton, was a professor of political science, just 10 years older than Clinton and her classmates, with an open-door office policy that students would regularly take advantage of.

Schechter, who said he viewed one of his functions as taking a students' inchoate ideas and helping them craft a researchable project, said he advised Clinton to make a comparison between a top-down government anti-poverty approach and a bottom-up model and focus it in Chicago, where Alinsky, whom she had met the previous year, was working on grass-roots organization.

He said Clinton approached it pragmatically and not from a pro-Alinsky perspective.

"The thesis was entirely pragmatic," Schechter said. "Its conclusions were extremely pragmatic -- 'This doesn't work,' 'that doesn't work,' 'this has the only hope of partial benefit.'"

IMG_0650 (2)m
Hillary Clinton's thesis on Saul Alinsky (Marilyn Thompson/The Washington Post)

He recalled her telling him the following spring that Alinsky had offered her a job, but she had concluded, he said, that his method wouldn’t have a major impact on poverty and that it would lose its impact on the political leaders of the community.

She had come to see Alinsky as a well-meaning rabble-rouser, Schechter argued.

Which brings us back to Carson. This is Political Attack 101 — finding an associate of your opponent who has done objectionable or controversial things and tying your opponent as closely to them and their deeds as possible. For Obama, it was Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.

The implication is that your opponent believes these same controversial things and is guilty by association.

It remains to be seen whether Alinsky and even Lucifer will be a significant part of the Republican- and Donald Trump-led case made against Clinton moving forward. Carson has a tendency to make analogies and say things that other Republicans won't.

In this campaign, it's hard to rule anything out.

Frances Stead Sellers contributed to this post.

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