January 22nd, 2012
03:32 PM ET
8 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)

    I love the rich 1%, because you have to admire a small group of people that can get a large group of people to defend them. 1% likes cheaper labor overseas vs USA labor, 1% likes the corporate tax breaks for creating jobs overseas vs creating USA jobs, 1% likes tax cuts for themselves vs tax increases that will help veterans, 1% loves when people who will never be in the 1% defend their 1%. I can't wait to get in the 1%.

    January 22, 2012 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  2. mms55

    so @vernon explain to me what is wrong with the 99% running this country rather than just the 1%?

    January 22, 2012 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  3. Joy

    What link would that be? The President geniunely cares ab out people. I don't understand what makes that a negative.

    January 22, 2012 05:42 pm at 5:42 pm |
  4. Dixie Independent voter

    Newt, the pompous windbag, tries to talk above the crowd to prove his "superior intelligence". Newt's past has been outed for all to know. He's not that smart - 'got himself kicked out of congress. Not smart, but he is cunning. He turns himself into the hero of every situation. Reagan is probably rolling in his grave after Newt professed himself to be a close associate. Sociopath - will say what the people want to hear for his own interests.

    January 22, 2012 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  5. Tyler Durden

    It takes a community to build a society. And a group of self-serving greedmongers to destroy it. I will align with the community builders, thank you very much.

    January 22, 2012 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  6. Butter My Butt And Call Me a Biscuit

    Do Republicans really believe that a candidate who couldn't even win his party's nomination in 2008 and a candidate kicked out BY HIS OWN PARTY can hope to beat Obama? Jeb Bush, Chris Christy, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, etc. don't think so. They don't think ANYBODY can beat Obama barring a successful terrorist attack or another Great Depression before November 2012. WHY DO YOU THINK THEY DECIDED THIS WAS NOT THE YEAR FOR THEM TO RUN?

    January 22, 2012 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  7. Dixie Independent voter

    Newt promises to speak on space soon. Will this be the mirrors hung in space to light the earth at night or mining on Mars?

    January 22, 2012 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  8. Anonymous

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

    Really?!? Not seeing it. Maybe you can help us out.

    January 22, 2012 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  9. LikeMike

    Vernon, Really???!! There are boogeymen around every corner, right? I'm curious how you see the link with Alinsky over the last three years or maybe you're talking about the R's link to Facism and big business croneyism.

    January 22, 2012 06:12 pm at 6:12 pm |
  10. Robert

    Similar to Karl Marx, income redistribution, socialism.

    January 22, 2012 06:16 pm at 6:16 pm |
  11. usualone

    Wow if that is truly what Alinsky did, it certainly doesn't sound radical unless one wants only the white male to stay in power. I guess in those who think that way he was radical. Well, I'lll take that kind of radicalism any day - someone wo cares about others than his immediate self. The Republicans have certainly showed that they are all about self - selfish self - in recent years, with the middle class and poorer people losing ground and all they do is protect the rich.

    January 22, 2012 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  12. Justjean

    Didn't know who Saul Alinsky was. I thought Gingrich was just being elitist by dropping names few others knew. Once explained...i do believe he was complimenting the Pres.

    January 22, 2012 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  13. trent1280

    The article fails to mention that Alinsky also trained some of our greatest community organizers.

    Through the Industrial Areas Foundation, Alinsky identified and trained Cesar Chavez, one of our most important and successful organizers. Chavez went on to lead the creation of the farmworkers' union in California. For the first time these people gained a union, a decent wage and benefits, and protection from pesticides.

    Thanks to Chavez, beginning with the Delano strike, the people who do this back-breaking stoop labor finally gained a dignity and respect long-denied by the grape growers of the Central and San Joaquin valleys. Chavez changed the way we treat farmworkers, and the way we value their labor.

    No wonder the Republicans hate Alinsky.

    He showed the working poor and the communities in which they live how to defend themselves against people whose only interest is profit - profit by any means necessary. Alinsky was a great American - he actually read the Declaration of Independence, and spent his life applying it.

    January 22, 2012 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  14. logicnLA

    So sad, so Republican. These must be the same people that came up with the lame "your mother wears army boots" jokes. But like bush before him, false association will work in getting some poeple's attention- just read these posts.

    January 22, 2012 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |
  15. GI Joe

    @Vernon - still watching fox instead of researching the facts, aren't you? YOU and your ilk are what is truly wrong about this country. You buy anything they sell on Fascist TV FOX.

    January 22, 2012 06:32 pm at 6:32 pm |
  16. Bernard Webb

    Conservatives seem to alternate between saying that liberals take orders from Alinksy (whom most of us never heard of) and saying that liberals take orders from George Soros (whom most of us don't care about). I assume that they do this because Limbaugh or Hannity told them to.

    January 22, 2012 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  17. Bigwilliestyles

    So Alinsky got out the vote in poor neighborhoods. Of course repubs hate that. They are trying to suppress the vote right now. It is how they operate, and the reason they are constantly being exposed as criminals. They couldn't care less about the law, rights or any of that. They have the minds of criminals.

    January 22, 2012 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  18. Laverne

    @Vernon: This is how lies and rumors to try and character assasinate someone is all about. Newt Gingrich is a dispicable person and not worthy to lead anything or anybody! If this is the best the republicans have to offer, than what in the hell is that saying......????

    January 22, 2012 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  19. brian in denver

    Looks like a Machiavellian attempt by Newt to prove what an intelligent, erudite historian he is. He's an arrogant windbag, in my humble opinion.

    January 22, 2012 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
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