Before dying suddenly at 43 last week, right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart promised a “bombshell” to dethrone the President and has now posthumously exploded it: Barack Obama saw a play about Saul Alinsky in Chicago 14 years ago.
Since politically deceased Newt Gingrich has also been hammering the President with Alinsky during GOP debates, herewith a word-for-word reprint of a post from March 27, 2007 to help voters judge for themselves Breitbart’s “stunner”:
In coming months, voters will be judging Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What will they make of their youthful intersections with one of the fascinating figures of twentieth-century American politics, Saul Alinsky?
A grass-roots organizer of the poor who used radical means to work within the system, Alinsky was a puzzle to ideologues of both the right and left.
In 1970, Time Magazine concluded, “It is not too much to argue that American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas. In an age of dissolving political labels, he is a radical--but not in the usual sense, and he is certainly a long way removed from New Left extremists.”
The year before, a Wellesley student, Hillary Rodham, had spent time a good deal of time interviewing him as the subject of her senior thesis.
Seventeen years later, a Columbia University graduate, Barack Obama, took a $13,000-a-year job in the Chicago organization Alinsky had founded.
Alinsky is a maddening figure to assess, even from this distance. He was charismatic, caring and selfless, but he could be crude, vulgar, disruptive and self-centered--often at the same time. His passion inspired downtrodden people, from Chicago stockyard workers to California migrant laborers, to organize and stand up for themselves.
Hillary Rodham’s thesis gave him a mixed review, conceding that Alinsky was “a born organizer” and “a man of exceptional charm” in “a peculiarly American tradition” but ultimately judging him unable to create larger social change. She was “tempted” but declined his offer of a job and went on to law school.
In 1985, Obama began three years of community organizing, getting residents to agitate for improvements such as better trash removal, playgrounds for their kids and removing asbestos from public housing. Then he too decided to go to law school.
In announcing his candidacy, Obama said that, in those neighborhoods, he had “received the best education I ever had” and “learned the true meaning of my Christian faith.”
Hillary Clinton has been more circumspect about her Alinsky experience. When her husband became President, she had her thesis sealed and, even now, it can only be read on the Wellesley campus.
Her caution is understandable: Hillary Rodham’s college years were a time of national turmoil. She began as president of the campus Republicans and ended supporting Gene McCarthy’s effort to stop the war in Vietnam.
What Clinton and Obama had in common, a generation apart, was youthful idealism looking for a way to express itself in the larger world. Despite his radical methods, Alinsky believed in working through the system. “Compromise,” he said, “is a noble word that sums up democracy.”
Now as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face the ultimate test of democracy, they can expect their early years to be the target of sliming. The producer of the swift-boat attack ads is salivating over the prospect of showing John McCain as a POW and superimposing phrases from the Wellesley thesis.
To deal with that kind of distortion, Clinton and Obama will have to show a toughness Alinsky doubted that people like them have. “A liberal,” he liked to say, “is someone who walks out of the room when the argument turns into a fight.”
What’s at stake in 2008 is worth fighting for.
So it is even more so in 2012.