Amongst the many outrageous (to me) comments that Newt Gingrich has been making, some of the most interesting are his references to Saul Alinsky, accusing Barack Obama of being Saul Alinsky’s “Manchurian Candidate”, knowingly or unknowingly putting forth some sort of radical, leftist (possibly Marxist) agenda of the late Chicago community organizer.
As Alinsky’s former aid Nicholas von Hoffman has recently pointed out, Obama was eleven when Alinsky died, and – based on some of Obama’s political miscues to date – Alinsky’s influence would be hard to find.
There seem to be two problems with Gingrich’s Alinsky allusions. First, there is no evidence that Obama is following an Alinsky agenda, and second, even if it were, there is no reason to think that an Alinsky agenda is anything like that which Gingrich implies it would be.
The many references to Alinsky led me to read Sanford Horwitt’s “Let Them Call Me Rebel”, his well researched and very well respected biography of Alinsky, published in 1989. Based on Horwitt’s book, and various other things I have read, I have reached a number of conclusions not about the relationship of Obama and Alinsky, but the relationship between Gingrich and Alinsky.
Let me give you some examples.
1. In spite of the continual allegation of various right wingers and right wing organizations, Alinsky was most definitely not a Communist, not a Communist fellow traveler, and not a Marxist. There is no evidence whatsoever that he, or the organizations he led or created, had Communist connections. During the McCarthy era, as you might expect, a fair amount of attention was paid to this very active community organizer; no evidence of any Communist or Marxist connection was ever found.
Obviously, Gingrich is not a Communist nor a Marxist (as far as I know).
So, here, they are similar.
2. Alinsky didn’t like liberals. He felt that liberals were for the underdog as long as they didn’t have to get their hands dirty, that their liberal instincts were primarily intellectual, and that you couldn’t rely on liberals to act on their liberal instincts.
Of course, Gingrich doesn’t like liberals, either (albeit, perhaps, for different different reasons).
So, here, we have another point of comparison between Gingrich and Alinsky.
3. Alinsky was against welfare and against the concept of a welfare state. He was a vocal opponent of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. He felt that these programs did not help the underclasses of the country, but would keep them in their places and make them dependent.
Here, we have an absolute Alinsky/Gingrich parallel.
4. Alinsky’s goal was to help non-elite communities organize themselves so that they could pressure the elite to accomplish their own political goals. (His particular talent was to teach communities how to do this, to identify potential leaders of the community, and to bring varying – and often warring – elements of the community to work together, often for the first time.)
Listen to Gingrich. He doesn’t style himself a “community organizer”, but, with all of his anti-Washington, anti-New York talk, he is speaking to people in the same financial condition and people who deem themselves equally powerless.
So, again, although their goals may be different, their audiences and their overall approaches to those audiences are closer than you might think. And, by the way, some of their communities are the same. Now Gingrich has not come out for any specific programs targeting African-Americans, Alinsky came to his work in black communities rather late in his career. He worked mainly with low income, immigrant, white ethnic communities. Alinsky believed for a long time that it would be too difficult to try to organize African-Americans, and that one of the biggest problems of the cities was the increasing black populations and their intrusion on white neighborhoods, and resulting white flight. His goal was to stabilize the white neighborhoods – one way to do this was to keep the blacks out or limit the number of blacks moving in, having racial quotas. Gingrich and Alinsky lived at different times – but would Gingrich have had a different philosopher here?
5. Now, it is true that, in order to gain his objectives, Alinsky would support a number of activities that might not obtain the approval of the New York Times’ Ethicist. It has been said that he believed that “the ends justified the means” – I think this is quite an exaggeration, but Alinsky did use controversial techniques (largely, having large numbers of poor folk show up in places where their presence would not be appreciated).
I don’t really know what Newt would think about techniques such as those used by Alinsky; he would most likely have opposed many of Alinsky’s specific actions. But he is, in his own way, an activist and if he were working locally, rather than nationally, I am not certain that he would not have engaged in similar tactics. But I don’t know.
5. Alinsky’s largest allies in his community organizational efforts were the established churches. He was particularly close to the Catholic church in Chicago, as his original work were done in Catholic ethnic (Polish, Irish, etc.) neighborhoods. Later, in his career, he also worked with many Protestant churches. Although Alinsky himself was Jewish, he did not work closely with any Jewish religious or civil organizations.
Most of Gingrich’s followers are religious, and, if he has not become yet the favorite of the conservative Christian groups, he is still pushing to be.
On work with religious organizations, I think Alinsky and Gingrich have a lot in common.
6. We know today that Gingrich is high on bombast, that he likes to say controversial things, that he likes to stir the pot, that he is sometimes fast and loose with the truth.
Guess what? You can say the exact same things about Alinsky.
7. We also see that some people who were previously close to Gingrich have turned against him, sometimes because of substance, and sometimes because of personality.
Guess what again? This is also the story of Alinsky’s relationships with many with whom he worked, and who supported him, over his career.
8. Finally (if this is relevant), we all know about Newt Gingrich’s marital history. We know that he left his first wife, when she was very sick with cancer. We know that he left his second wife, to marry a younger woman with whom he had been having an affair for several years.
Believe it or not, Alinsky’s history is virtually identical, except Alinsky was more efficient. Alinsky’s first wife died in a tragic drowning accident. After a number of years, he remarried apparently very happily, but his wife came down with MS. As her condition worsened, she moved to a vacation house they had bought in Carmel, California, and Alinsky was not there very often. And he met a new woman, thirty years his junior (58/28) and divorced his wife, so he could marry his young friend, after their affair had continued for several years.
Hard to find two people more alike than Alinsky and Gingrich in their treatment of ill wives.
All of this is not to say that they were clones of each other. Their political positions were not the same. They probably would not have been best friends. But as to personality and tactics, Newt Gingrich and the Saul Alinsky he loves to target, were peas in a pod.
One more thing. Look at Barack Obama, and go back and see how he compares with the characteristics of Alinsky described above. Is there any similarity at all? I can’t find it.