Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Frank Mankiewicz Headshot

America, Meet Saul Alinsky, The Great Man Newt Gingrich Wants You To Hate

Posted: Updated:

In his victory statement in South Carolina, and again in the final Florida debate, Newt Gingrich twice accused President Obama of shaping our country to reflect the ideals of Saul Alinsky. He did so twice in his relatively short address, and he has referred to Alinsky as an undescribed villain at least twice before in his campaign. On each occasion, he has offered us nothing beyond Alinsky's name, as though he were referring to as well-known a person as, for example, Steven Spielberg or Paula Abdul. He has told us nothing of Alinsky, whether he is alive or dead and, if of this century, American or not, a political leader or a rock star and, above all, why we should go all out to defeat President Obama in order to thwart this unknown villain's influence over America.

Saul Alinsky's name is not just one of a long list of villains cited by Gingrich as scheming role models or disciples of the president; he stands alone. Alas, except in Chicago, where he spent his entire life, no member of the "Mainstream Media" has picked up on the Alinsky Menace, to tell us in any detail just who this dreaded influence is -- or was, and why we need to support Mr. Gingrich in order to thwart him -- or his memory.

As one who was quite familiar with Alinsky's ideas in the 1960s, when I tried hard -- and at some times successfully -- to put some of them into effect in Latin America as an official of the Peace Corps, I want to add at least a footnote to this campaign for the Presidency, and even to try to put Gingrich's baffling demonization of him into perspective.

Alinsky, born in 1909 and always a citizen of Chicago, was the guiding force in shaping an historic community organization called "Back of the Yards," a loose community group in the area behind the stockyards in Chicago, the very area which is the site of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Alinsky believed these 20th century people, if they realized their common difficulties, could be organized into a community force that could bring about real change.

Alinsky fought hard against the prejudices in the largely ethnic enclaves of Chicago. He struggled with the fact that poor workers were too afraid of their employers to fight against the economic injustices that kept them in poverty. Besides, it seemed "radical"; to form an organization or to join one -- even a labor union. Perhaps even more important, his efforts were almost unanimously opposed by the local priests in the largely Roman Catholic parishes. So Alinsky turned to Rev. Bernard Sheil, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, whom he knew to be a friend of labor, and together, they approached every priest in the neighborhood. Eventually, the Movement had signed up thousands of members, and within a short time the employers had yielded on all the key points Alinsky's organizers had raised.

This triumph and subsequent ones elsewhere made me an admirer and, when I became a Peace Corps official -- in Peru and later as Regional Director for Latin America -- a disciple of Alinsky's. Volunteers under my direction were trained as Community Organizers to, in Alinsky phrase, "rub raw the sores of discontent" in the urban and rural areas of poverty where they were assigned. Communities were formed from collections of individuals with grievances that went unexpressed, until a community organizer urged them to raise them together. We used American examples -- a reading club, a carpool, a credit union -- and unused land became playing fields, abandoned buildings were made into local stores and teachers sent from distant headquarters began to respect their students and their language and their culture.

That's the legacy of Saul Alinsky, Newt, you can find it wherever he or his ideas have played out. And when Saul Alinsky was awarded the Pacem In Terris Award, by a number of Catholic archdioceses and organizations in 1969 he became one of an honorable group of recipients. Among them, well, John F. Kennedy, George Kennan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., Sargent Shriver, A. Philip Randolph, Mother Teresa and Lech Walesa. Maybe, Newt, you might want to add all these names with Saul Alinsky's to your own Enemies List.