Saul Alinsky's Centennial and His Advice to Obama: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

2009, Saul Alinsky's centennial, is off to a terrific start. Just ten days before his's 100th birthday, his community organizing disciple was sworn in as president.
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Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, had a big year in 2008, even though he had been dead for 36 years.

And 2009, Alinsky's centennial, is off to a terrific start. Just ten days before Alinsky's 100th birthday, his community organizing disciple was sworn in as president. Barack Obama's link to Alinsky has been noted countless times, especially in the conservative blogosphere where one not-so-happy camper thinks the appropriate name for the 44th president should be Barack Hussein Alinsky. On the eve of the inauguration, another similarly disenchanted blogger said he wouldn't be surprised if Obama took the oath of office with his left hand firmly on the Alinsky bible, Rules for Radicals.

Saul, whose ego was at least as well developed as Obama's appears to be, would be feasting on all of the attention if he were still among us. He was a smart, funny, thoroughly engaging old-school Chicagoan with a rugged voice and style that evoked Humphrey Bogart and Lee Marvin. Since he enjoyed charming attractive women, he would have been delighted to hear that Barack won over Michelle with an Alinsky line. At least that's one version of the courtship that Michelle has told. "[Barack] took me to this training in a church basement on the far South Side of [Chicago]," she recalled. "Most of the folks who were in that basement were there because they faced some point of hopelessness. We walk in and he takes off his suit jacket and launches into what I think is the most eloquent discussion about the world as it is and the world as it should be. And that was it. Really, after that day . . . I was in love with him."

I also heard Alinsky talk eloquently about the difference between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be when I first met him in 1966 at a ten day training he led south of San Francisco. There were about 30 clergy and would-be organizers and me, a college student who had discovered Alinsky in a magazine article and wanted to meet him. I was not disappointed.

With the kind of political clarity that I had not heard before and infrequently since, Alinsky sketched out a hard-headed yet ultimately idealistic picture of how democratic decision-making works in the world as it is. There the contest is between organized money and organized people. At the national level since Alinsky's death, organized money has been winning, symbolized by the explosion of corporate lobbyists in Washington, while organized labor atrophied and became a shadow of what it was two generations ago.

What advice would Saul Alinsky give the new president? It might go something like this: "Barack, remember what got you here. I'm not talking about the run of political luck you've had, starting with your Senate race. I remember a guy shooting craps in a Hyde Park bookie joint on 55th Street who couldn't lose either, until his luck ran out. And raising a ton of dough on the Internet was important, but what you did with it is what got you here. You plowed millions into organizing. You beat the only tough opponent you've had in five years, Hillary, by out-organizing her in the caucus states. That's why you're in the White House. By the way, I knew Hillary as a college kid -- she wrote her senior thesis about me when she was at Wellesley. I offered her a fellowship to my new training institute but she went to law school instead. Big mistake.

"In any event, you're not going to beat the health insurance industry, or any of the big corporate guys, with YouTube or Twitter. You need an organized army of citizens, a larger and more sustained force than you organized during the campaign. It's all in that 60-page Organizer's Guide that your campaign used for the Camp Obama trainings, especially the parts about organizing house meetings to build relationships and common ground among millions of ordinary Americans. You know, my man Fred Ross in California invented the house meeting technique in the 1940s, years before he discovered Cesar Chavez picking apricots near San Jose and turned him into one of my best organizers.

"So, Barack, keep your eyes on the prize and keep organizing, organizing, organizing!

"And one last thing: I heard that after the November election, an irate right winger wrote a piece titled, 'Saul Alinsky Takes the White House.' Don't let that bother you. It has a nice ring."

Sanford D. Horwitt is the author of Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy.

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