Alinsky and Gingrich—separated at mirth? Alinsky's son speaks | Bleader

Alinsky and Gingrich—separated at mirth? Alinsky's son speaks


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When Newt Gingrich fulminates, the name of Saul Alinsky springs easily to his lips. President Obama is, you know, a "Saul Alinsky radical." The race for president is "American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky."

Just about everybody who knows anything about Alinsky has weighed in on Gingrich's zany offensive, often with a guess-it-takes-one-to-know-one air of amused irony. For instance, here's how the Tribune's Eric Zorn began his remarks: "I suspect Saul Alinsky would nod with grudging admiration at the way GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich repeatedly injects his name into speeches and interviews."

And here's Philip Klein in the conservative Washington Examiner:

Many of the tactics [Alinsky] spoke about—such as exploiting resentment and pitting oneself against the establishment—have become a central part of Gingrich's strategy for securing the Republican presidential nomination.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" this past Sunday, Gingrich attributed his South Carolina victory to two things. The first was the economic pain that people were feeling. He then continued, "The second, though, which I think nobody in Washington and New York gets, is the level of anger at the national establishment."

Gingrich's clashes against the establishment are classic Alinsky.

Alinsky knew how to drive establishments crazy. So does Gingrich. The Republican establishment began speaking out in virtually one voice last week to try to shut Gingrich up and make him go away. If Alinsky were whispering in Gingrich's ear, that's when he'd have said, "You've got those big shots right where you want them. Now's the time to sit down and tell them your terms."

But does Gingrich have terms to give? Does he want anything beyond the Republican nomination for president and the ruination of his party if he doesn't get it? Alinsky was no nihilist. And there are other differences.

Yes, Alinsky was a radical—a charge that cannot be denied, as his two famous books are Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971). He was a famous Chicago-born community organizer who went on to worldwide fame. He succeeded in getting a lot of what he wanted because he knew how to cut deals, a talent that Gingrich apparently has no interest in, and he created enduring alliances, such as the one the New Republic's Michael Kazin describes here with the Catholic Church. By contrast, Gingrich seems to alienate former friends faster than he makes new ones.

All Gingrich cares to know about Alinsky—ditto the wing of the Republican Party that adores him—is that Alinsky was a community organizer in Chicago, and later so was Barack Obama, who's spoken fondly of him. And guess who wrote her senior thesis about, and then was offered a job by, Alinsky? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Nuff said. That Alinsky-Obama-Clinton-Chicago-dark-side pentagram is evil stuff! Patriots beware.

Yet here's Alinsky in the early pages of Rules for Radicals:

I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic. Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner doubt of whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world with cruelty, pain, and injustice. Those who enshrine the poor or Have-Nots are just as guilty as other dogmatists and just as dangerous.

There might be a little (or a lot) of Obama in that passage—ask the wannabe admirers who complain that Obama lacks fire, lacks the courage of his convictions, or perhaps the convictions themselves. But Gingrich? Watching him in action on the campaign trail, I have no idea whether from moment to moment he speaks with complete certainty or complete cynicism; but clearly the "small inner doubt" fairy passed his house by. Cynics, true believers, and mindless blowhards all get off easy in life, but not in Alinsky's eyes. It's the virtuous doubter—who burns a lot of energy asking himself questions that don't have easy answers—whom he admired. I doubt if Gingrich gets that type at all.

There's one other huge difference between Alinsky and Gingrich. Alinsky's son David, who lives in Boston and makes a living upgrading computer networks, brought it up. David Alinsky thinks one reason why the right believes it can tar Obama with Saul Alinsky's name is the name itself. "It's foreign sounding, Russian or Polish or something Middle European," says David. "That kind of folks could never be trusted anyway. He's probably Jewish, and we know all about how those Jews are. We're all for Israel, but we don't like the Jews."

In David's view, it's "almost immaterial" whether Gingrich has any idea what Saul Alinsky actually thought and did. The point is, he serves Gingrich's purposes—which are "to set him up as a sort of Willy Horton/swift boat kind of individual, some boogieman, some scary thing that goes bump in the night, that'll rape your daughter and eat your children."

As for the big difference between Saul Alinsky and Gingrich and the other demonizers on the right—it's fundamental. Alinsky, his son points out, had an enormous sense of humor. Gingrich has none. (If anyone can recall a single moment of genuine wit or levity from Gingrich, please post it here. If that's too hard, anything from Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum will do.) David Alinsky asks me rhetorically, "Would you think the tea party would ever think of going into a neighborhood—say a supposedly liberal neighborhood like Hyde Park—and sitting on the curb with 200 people and eating chicken and watermelon? It would never occur to them something like that might be effective."

It occurred to Saul Alinsky. Back in the 60s, when the Woodlawn Organization was fighting the University of Chicago over a redevelopment plan that was leveling black housing, Alinsky organized a delegation to go up to the North Shore and embarrass the university's trustees in their neighborhood. Another time was recalled Friday by Eric Zorn. When Alinsky was in Rochester trying to get Eastman Kodak to hire more of the city's blacks, he threatened to feed a hundred supporters baked beans and then bring them to a program of the local philharmonic. According to biographer Nicholas von Hoffman, this threatened "fart in" was followed back in Chicago by a threatened "piss in," Alinsky gleefully letting it be gossiped that he was considering an occupation of the toilet stalls at O'Hare Field. The mere idea was sufficient to bring his adversaries (this time Chicago's City Hall) to the bargaining table.

Von Hoffman, a protégé who became a newspaper columnist, eulogized Alinsky in 1972 in the Chicago Tribune. "His mistrust of perfected social theories often made other radicals mistrust him," Hoffman wrote. "The man enjoyed his work too much to be a real revolutionary. Revolution, you see, must be carried on with a long face, and since Saul was always getting a huge, honking laugh out of it, he was accused of being a secret liberal."

When Barack Obama was trying to pass a universal health care law, he held town hall meetings that were attended by Second Amendment patriots, toting rifles and holstered pistols to let it be known they did not want their Constitution trifled with. It was bravado theater, and David Alinsky was impressed. "That would have been the kind of thing he would have thought up," he said about his father.

So I asked him if he kind of forgives the right when it pounds his dad—because some of the stuff they do shows how far Saul Alinsky's legacy has spread.

"Forgiving!" he said. "I think they're a bunch of fucking assholes. Would you like me to put a finer point on it?"