Updated: February 25, 2012 8:13AM
WASHINGTON — GOP White House hopeful Newt Gingrich constantly — the latest time on Sunday — invokes the name of the late Saul Alinsky — a Chicago native — when he wants to assert that President Barack Obama is a “radical.”
Gingrich, a historian, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the work of Alinsky, a legendary community organizer in Chicago’s Woodlawn and Back of the Yard neighborhoods and beyond.
With his anti-elitist, anti-establishment populist rhetoric—on display Saturday night in his South Carolina victory speech in which he slammed “elites” in Washington and New York — Gingrich seems as if he is taking a page from the Alinsky playbook.
“Newt’s anti-elitism is so much what Alinsky really was about,” Alinsky biographer Sanford D. Horwitt told me Sunday. “Alinsky was about organizing ordinary people so they could get a seat at the table rather than getting crumbs or no crumbs at all when public policies were decided,” said Horwitt, the author of Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy.
Alinsky was born in Chicago on Jan. 30, 1909; he lived around Maxwell Street until his family moved to North Lawndale when he was 6. He attended Marshall High School and the University of Chicago. He lived most of his life in Hyde Park. He died on June 12, 1972, in Carmel, Calif.
Horwitt has a Google alert for Alinsky, so it’s easy to track how he has become a lightning rod for the right. About 15 to 20 times a day, the “overwhelming majority” of those alerts equate Alinsky with socialism, anti-capitalism and the Obama White House, Horwitt said. “And that has not let up since Obama was elected.”
Alinsky’s name first surfaced in the 2008 presidential race when Obama was battling Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Clinton, who grew up in Park Ridge, wrote her Wellesley senior thesis on the “Alinsky model” of organizing.
Alinsky’s work indirectly touched generations of activists, including Obama, who came to Chicago to become a community organizer.
The demonization of Alinsky started as 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, his running mate, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani and other Republicans invoked his name — along with Bill Ayers — to give voters the impression that Obama was allied with terrorists, socialists or worse.
On CNN Sunday, Gingrich said, “One of the reasons I think people in South Carolina voted for me was the belief that I could debate Obama head-to-head, that I could convey conservative values and that I could in an articulate way explain what American exceptionalism was all about and why the values that he believes in, the Saul Alinsky radicalism that is at the heart of Obama, are a disaster.”
Horwitt, who obtained Alinsky’s FBI files when he researched his book, said “Alinsky was emphatically not a Marxist, he was not a Communist ever. He was a true American populist. And here is a bit of an irony. I think that Newt right now, some of Newt’s strongest appeal is his populism.”
Gingrich’s victory speech, in which he “went after elites in Washington and New York . . . really has a lot of currency, and I think it does not just have currency among Republican primary voters but also on the left,” Horwitt said.
“. . . Alinsky had no interest in replacing the basic system in this country, political or economic. What he loved about this country is you had the freedom to change a lot of the rules, meaning that you could get a seat at the table for low-income people or even middle-class people,” Horwitt said.
In Chicago, Alinsky’s flamboyant tactics fighting slumlords and bad schools drew attention. But he operated with important support, even as he battled with the first Mayor Daley. Horwitt points out that Alinsky started his Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940 with a $10,000 grant from Marshall Field III and was backed by two Chicago cardinals — Samuel Stritch and Albert Meyer.
And what would Alinsky make of the Tea Party movement? Said Horwitt, “I think that Alinsky and some of the Tea Party people really would have common ground.”