When I hear former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rail against the "radical" Saul Alinsky, I just smile. Gingrich has reached into the past to find an enemy for the present, but I know something about Saul Alinsky.
In the late 1960s I was a student at The Loomis School, a prep school just north of Hartford, Conn. The outside world was breaking loose with protests against the war in Vietnam and it was the golden age for sex, drugs and rock and roll. But students at Loomis were required to wear jackets and ties to class and attend mandatory chapel twice during the week and again on Sunday.
We had to get up early, dress like gentlemen, then stay awake in the stiff pews. The chaplain at the time was a podium-pounding fundamentalist who famously gave a sermon titled "You Can't Make Love Out of a Second Story Window," which has left those who heard it scratching their heads for the rest of their lives. In a school of smart, and smart-assed, kids, mandatory chapel was not getting through with a message anyone remembered.
Try as the school did to mold us into upright young men, you could smell marijuana smoke drifting from dormitory bathrooms where boys exhaled into the ventilation grates. The Stones and Jimi Hendrix blasted from windows. We were straining to be allowed to grow our hair long and wear blue jeans to class, to be free.
Yet even while holding on to the Edwardian Age, the school exposed us to ideas and change with great visiting speakers: The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the anti-war chaplain at Yale; Roger Hilsman, the veteran of Merrill's Marauders who advised Kennedy on Vietnam; and the radical organizer Saul Alinsky.
He was an owlish, balding man in rumpled clothes who spoke in a forceful voice. He was unlike anything we had ever heard, a Jewish rabble rouser who spent his life making other lives better. The entire student body listened quietly while he described a life organizing workers and communities. Then Alinsky said he got his start organizing a rebellion against mandatory chapel at The University of Chicago. A roar went up from the students. They whistled, cheered and stomped and it was a good five minutes before Alinsky was able to speak again.
Alinsky challenged us to examine who we were and what was important. He told us to care for the poor and stand up to the rich. He told us to value peace, education and equality. He showed us how to get rid of traditions that held us down. He reached us in a way that chapel sermons never did.
Saul Alinsky stood up for the poor, the abused workers and lower classes drafted into war. He stood for what any good presidential candidate should stand for today.
I don't think anyone in the hall that night ever forgot Saul Alinsky. Within weeks of his appearance, our own student rebellion freed us from mandatory chapel. Jackets and ties disappeared and we grew our hair. I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector and never wore loafers again. I was lucky. I was radicalized by Saul Alinsky.