January 22nd, 2012
03:32 PM ET
3 years ago

Who is Saul Alinsky? A Gingrich line explained

(CNN) – In framing his attacks on President Barack Obama for a possible November showdown, Newt Gingrich repeatedly brings up the name of an influential radical organizer from the first half of the 20th century.

"Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama," Gingrich said Sunday in an interview with CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.

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The night before, the former House Speaker invoked the name in his victory speech after the South Carolina primary, saying: "The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky."

And earlier, at a New Year's Eve campaign event in Iowa, Gingrich declared that Obama "really is sort of a classic Saul Alinsky radical whose basic ideas are the opposite of what we need to create jobs."

So who is Saul Alinsky, and why is Gingrich so insistent on linking that name to Obama?

Born in Chicago in 1909, Alinsky organized communities in his birth city and California, helping minorities in poor neighborhoods exert political force by collectively demanding better working conditions and getting them to polling stations.

Alinsky's most famous book, "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals," describes a confrontational method for curing economic inequality - something most conservatives would shun.

In reference to "The Prince" by Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century primer for political intrigue, Alinsky wrote: "'The Prince' was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. 'Rules for Radicals' is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

Alinsky further explained his methods in a video clip included in the 1999 documentary "The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and his Legacy."

"First rule of change is controversy," Alinsky said. "You can't get away from it for the simple reason all issues are controversial. Change means movement and movement means friction, and friction means heat, and heat means controversy."

Democrats have long been aligned with Alinsky's name and methods, even if they haven't always trumpeted his legacy.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote her undergraduate college thesis on Alinsky, a fact critics used to paint her as a radical during her tenure as First Lady and later when she ran for the 2008 Democratic nomination.

Obama, who was 10 years old when Alinsky died in 1972, has never publicly said he was influenced by Alinksy's teachings. However, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, when colleagues of Alinsky would still have been active.

Conservatives also have cited Alinsky as an influence, in technique if not in substance.

In an interview with the Financial Times in 2009, former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey said conservatives fed up with Obama's policies could employ Alinsky's practices.

"What I think of Alinsky is that he was very good at what he did, but what he did was not good," Armey said.

Now the leader of Freedomworks, a conservative organization aligned with the tea party movement, Armey acknowledged some Alinsky-esque activities by the right-wing group.

"We don't organize people to turn up at these town-hall meetings – we don't provide buses to get them there," he told the newspaper. "But we tell them about the meetings and we suggest good questions they could ask."

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Filed under: 2012 • Newt Gingrich • President Obama
soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. JimJerry

    Who is Saul Elinsky? Haha, you act like you don't know, what a joke you people are.

    January 22, 2012 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  2. Anthony... proud tax payer

    Conjuring up a new boogie man...

    "Born in Chicago in 1909, Alinsky organized communities in his birth city and California, helping minorities in poor neighborhoods exert political force by collectively demanding better working conditions and getting them to polling stations."

    Well.. I could see why Republicans would see this man as an enemy... to h3ll with the poor or minorities.

    January 22, 2012 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  3. cory

    i'm surprised that republicans (many of whom have actively pursued an anti intellectual agenda recently) are getting behind Prof Gingrich.

    I'm not clued in to the political history savvy of the republican base but i do wonder if this repeated reference is going over their heads... or will they be responding to a name 'Saul Alinsky'? a jewish russian name and therefore socialist (vague connections are almost more effective than specific ones)? I wonder...

    January 22, 2012 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  4. Fla Pete

    Don't believe anything that Armey says,he is nothing but a loser in the political areana.Obama does know how to organize,so Repubs take note,your end is near...You forget how you use the readings of one of Hitlers propaganda gurus,to further your agenda,remember Joseph Goebbels.He like you kept repeating lies till people started to believe him,easy for Repubs,because they're so narrow minded.Typical rightwing hypcrites,all of you...

    January 22, 2012 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  5. Josaphat Daniels

    It is a dishonourable shame that a 73 year old grandfather like gingringh would stoop to name calling like that of a 7 or 3 year old kid. This fat old sac of hot air is just spreading cynicism and hatred. He wants americans to hate President Obama
    so that they can vote for him. Unfortunately for him gone are those days when the southern strategies which gave Nixon and Reagan the presidency was effective. The southern strategy won't help you or your fellow republicans win the white house.

    January 22, 2012 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  6. Diane Fourny

    What the article does not mention is "why would Gingrich throw out this name (repeating it several times) to a crowd and American viewers, 99% of whom would have no idea who this man is?" Once again, Gingrich is playing the ethnic, xenophobic card here by giving a name that for many would only translate into (1) Jewish [Saul]; (2) Russian or Eastern European [Alinsky], so also tied to radical socialist if not communist ideas and "foreign." Gingrich's demagoguery knows no bounds, and he will pull any strings on the uninformed or ignorant that triggers hatred for blacks, foreigners, Jews, Arabs, people of color, Muslims, etc. by the mere dropping of a name or word be it "the Food Stamp" president or friend of a "Saul Alinsky." Really disgusting.

    January 22, 2012 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  7. Dopeysucks

    The article does describe Dopey to the 'T" Alinsky was a socialist and commie lover just like Dopey is...out to say that they support the poor and so on when all they want to do is turn this place into a China of the past...ask any Chinese how much they loved it working for the commune and got nothing out of it but poorer. Get rid of this s c u m in Dopey and all liberal terrorists.

    January 22, 2012 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  8. GI Joe

    Alinsky has been dead 49 years. Before Obama was born. He believed people that joined together in communities could help each other. Hence, Community organizers came about.

    The Adelson multi-millionnaire that gave $5 million to Newt's pac (and will probably give millions more), you know, the guy in Vegas -- he's very much alive and will probably want favors from his buddy for the money contibuted.

    Let's see. Groups, i.e., We the people --- Or --– One rich person buying favors. Wonder which people will choose?

    January 22, 2012 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  9. Mike

    I don't think most people could give a flip who Saul Alinsky is...but Gingrich uses him because he has a Jewish name, and the name sounds vaguely like that of a Russian revolutionary (think Leon Trotsky), which means he must be evil.

    January 22, 2012 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  10. vic , nashville ,tn

    "Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama," Gingrich

    Newt Gingrich can’t make these kinds of comments if he is the nominee, Democrats will pound him with his records

    January 22, 2012 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  11. mack

    It seems that Newt and the GOP are big Alinsky fans.

    January 22, 2012 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  12. GI Joe

    Don't even start with the socialism crap.

    Socialism means the people that PRODUCE have the power. That means the workers. That means "we the people".
    You folks that say it like it's a nasty form of government need to look up the definition before you start making all those negative remarks

    Also, Fascism - where corporations with the money make the rules for the workers and the "peons" - that's what the republicans want.

    We have a choice. I prefer the community organizer - "that one" -- democracy.

    January 22, 2012 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  13. migeli

    These Republican candidates are nothing but stooges for the wealthy who want to keep their tax cuts.Junior needs a yacht just like daddys.They also represent the corporations that want to keep all those tax loopholes.Throw the Tea party stoodges out and tax the rich and keep Obama.Obama has learned he can't work with these people.All they wanted to do was kill his presidency not help him save our country.Tea party traitors or lmbeciles.Sick of Republican lies.

    January 22, 2012 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  14. Funny boy

    I heard Gabby Giffords had half a mind to run again!

    January 22, 2012 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  15. jilli

    You quote Dick Armey – the guy that used lobbyists to "organize" the rube tea partiers to rally against their own personal interests. Bull crap they don't organize or bus them in – that's what propelled the tea partiers.

    I see nothing horrifying about Alinsky – I see nothing wrong with the majority organizing for their better interests, the wealthy do it by financing their candidates. Gingrich is counting on the lemmings not doing any research and just reacting with fear. Typical fear mongering from the right.

    January 22, 2012 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  16. Vernon

    This is very disturbing! If you look at Obama's last 3 yrs in office you can see the link

    January 22, 2012 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  17. DonBeal

    I knew practically nothing about Saul Alinsky. Now I do. Thanks, Newt. "A People’s Organization is dedicated to an eternal war. It is a war against poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, hopelessness, despair, and unhappiness." This is a quote from Alinsky's Reveille for Radicals. So, Newt, if you are trying to use Alinsky to place President Obama in a bad light, does that mean you are in favor of poverty, misery, delinquency, disease, injustice, despair, and unhappiness?

    January 22, 2012 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  18. DonBeal

    In January, 2001, as George W. Bush was unpacking at the White House, the Dow Jones was 10,646. Eight years later, as Bush was packing for Texas, the Dow was 9035, a loss of over 1000 points, and it was falling. Two months into President Obama's first term, the Dow stood at 6627. After three years of Obama's presidency, the Dow stood at 12,720. President Obama has helped the investing class make millions. That doesn't support the idea of President Obama being a socialist. If Mitt Romney's worth is anything like what the rise in the Dow indicates, Mitt's worth has gone from $200,000,000 to $300,000,000. (This is just a rough guess. Maybe it would be more enlightening if Mitt would release statements of net worth over the past five or so years.)

    January 22, 2012 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  19. Susan in Arkansas

    Oh, come on folks. Get over it already. These "historical" references candidates use to malign their opponents is passe'. Just remember what happened to McCain/Palin when they tried to tie Obama to supposed terrorists and "evil" activists. The rhetoric got way out of hand, so much so, that even McCain tried to quiet it down. Anyone who has studied the art of persuasion knows that negativity does not win over the majority...only the nutballs that need to be angry at something.

    January 22, 2012 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  20. Mr. Moderate

    And if his name were Bob Smith, he would never be mentioned. Saul Alinsky sounds exotic and kind of ominous, perfect for the narrative they try to weave about the President not really being one of us. This is yet another one of those scary sounding words the right uses to try to scare people into supporting them.

    January 22, 2012 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  21. lps

    Newt is the only candidate that could point these things out. H e won't be the nominee but he could sling lots of mud at the left before he goes.

    January 22, 2012 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  22. Gemini Girl

    If more people in this country had followed in the footsteps of Saul Alinsky, this country would be a far better place. Instead you have the likes of people following in the footsteps of Gordon Gecko, and becoming greedy hedge fund managers, greedy corporate raiders, and greedy lobbyists! Honestly, The Man Upstairs cannot be very happy with what mankind has become...

    January 22, 2012 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  23. Sandy

    Vernon wrote:

    "This is very disturbing! If you look at Obama's last 3 yrs in office you can see the link"

    What's so disturbing about a community organizer helping minorities and the poor? That should be commended! I'm for the Community Organizer!

    Obama 2012

    January 22, 2012 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  24. vote the Tea Party OUT in 2012

    playing the old "fear and smear" card pretty early Newt is. And with the base of the Republican Party which does very little research and fact-checking because they tend not to be very bright this will work indeed. Karl Rove politics at it's best. Make sure the opponent is NOT ONE OF US! He even did this with Mitt and as you can see it worked.

    January 22, 2012 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  25. Angy

    GI Joe

    Alinsky has been dead 49 years. Before Obama was born. He believed people that joined together in communities could help each other. Hence, Community organizers came about.

    The Adelson multi-millionnaire that gave $5 million to Newt's pac (and will probably give millions more), you know, the guy in Vegas - he's very much alive and will probably want favors from his buddy for the money contibuted.

    Let's see. Groups, i.e., We the people - Or –– One rich person buying favors. Wonder which people will choose?
    January 22, 2012 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
    ________________________________________________________________________________________________
    WELL SAID!!

    January 22, 2012 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
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