Saul Alinsky, poster child | On Media | Chicago Reader

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Saul Alinsky, poster child

Right-wingers continue to link Barack Obama to community organizer Saul Alinsky. Proof? Obama attended a 1998 performance of The Love Song of Saul Alinsky


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To terrorize an audience, stimulate its imagination to work overtime. Hitchcock understood this—we never do see a knife pierce flesh in Psycho's famous shower scene. Similarly, conservative auteurs base their claim that Barack Obama is an unconstitutional alien in the Oval Office not on a birth certificate that says he was born in a foreign country but on the lack of one meeting their high standard for authenticity that says he wasn't. And the case that Obama is a dangerous socialist hell-bent on destroying the capitalist system that allows any man, no matter how poor, to dream of getting rich hangs on—

Well, on not much more than the information contained in the theater poster that illustrates this column.

Let's take a look at this poster.

It's red—and that right there, like the darkening water that swirls down Janet Leigh's drain, is plenty suggestive. It touts a play called The Love Song of Saul Alinsky, Alinsky being the notorious community organizer from Chicago who wrote books with titles like Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. On it, fists are raised—meaning insurrection is in the air.

And down at the very bottom, crawling across the poster in small print, it mentions the panel discussions that will follow the Sunday performances. The panelists are that era's usual "progressive" suspects: Leon Despres, Monsignor Jack Egan, Studs Terkel . . .

And state senator Barack Obama.

Obama was on the panel that talked about Alinsky the last Sunday of the play's run at the Blue Rider Theatre in Pilsen. Neither Pam Dickler, who directed the Terrapin Theatre production, nor Gary Houston, who played Alinsky, can remember a word Obama said. But he impressed them. "You never would have known he was a politician," says Dickler. "He never said anything at all about himself. He came alone, watched the play, and during the panel discussion was entirely on point and brilliant. That evening I called my father, who's a political junkie, and told him to watch out for this man, he's going places." Houston was just as taken by Obama—though he remembers him arriving in a group.

Whatever—it was a long time ago. Yet for some conservatives it may as well have been yesterday.

Early in his career, Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, and his archenemies have been making what they can of that for years. There are two ways of looking at this line in his resume. One is to see it as trivial. At the 2008 Republican Convention former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani praised the military and political record of John McCain and then chuckled, "On the other hand, you have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer. What? He worked—I said—I said, OK, OK, maybe this is the first problem on the resume. He worked as a community organizer. He immersed himself in Chicago machine politics."

The other is to see it as subversive. The best way to do this is to tie Obama to Alinsky. Alinsky was an organizer all his life; Obama did it a few years, pronounced himself exasperated at how little he was accomplishing, and went into politics. But then, so did the Manchurian Candidate.

Three years ago, in the influential screed Barack Obama's Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model, reformed left-winger David Horowitz maintained that no president before Obama so "owed his understanding of the political process to a man and a philosophy so outside the American mainstream, or so explicitly dedicated to opposing it." That man was Alinsky, the master of "political nihilism"—his only goal "to take power from the Haves and give it to the Have-nots." Horowitz cited unimpeachable evidence, a 2007 New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza: "When Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: 'You want to organize for power!'"

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