02/02/2012 01:46 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

Who Is Saul Alinsky and Why is Newt Demonizing Him?

Now that Newt Gingrich, badly beaten in three of four Republican primaries, has vowed to exact revenge by pressing his sick, pathetic, lie-filled candidacy all the way to the GOP national convention next August, we may expect to hear a lot more about one of Newt's favorite targets, Saul Alinsky.

Few Republican voters or other Americans have any idea who Saul Alinsky was. Nor does Newt tell them. Which hasn't prevented him from cussing out Alinsky almost daily -- and no less than three times in his South Carolina victory speech.

"Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama," Gingrich declares. And to make doubly sure they know the good guy from the baddie, he proclaims: "I believe in the Constitution; I believe in the Federalist Papers. Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and secular European socialist bureaucracy."

Newt Gingrich, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers. Yay! Saul Alinsky, radicalism, secularism, Europe, socialism, and bureaucracy. Boo!

Just who was Saul Alinsky? And why is Newt demonizing him? Alinsky was the founder of modern community organizing, who worked to improve the lot of poor people in cities from New York to California, especially including Chicago, his birthplace, and the city where Obama later did his own community organizing. Alinsky once described his work as "the banding together of large numbers of men and women to fight for those rights which insure a decent way of life."

Was Alinsky Obama's mentor? Certainly not personally. He died in 1972, when Obama was ten and living in Hawaii. But as a man whose methods have been used and praised by those on the right-- including Dick Armey and the late William F. Buckley Jr. -- as well as the left, Alinsky's influence was strongly felt by the president-to-be in Obama's organizing work in Chicago.

Why is Alinsky to Newt like the matador's cape to the bull? For one thing he was a Jew, which may not trouble Gingrich, who never needs to mention it. Alinsky's name is enough, a red flag to many of Newt's bigoted followers (as columnist Clarence Page put it: "[I]t is not what the Republican presidential candidate says that counts; it is what his audiences feel when he says it.") For another, Alinsky was a longtime battler for the poor -- including the black poor.

Alinsky was born to Russian Jewish parents. Although an acknowledged radical (his last book was entitled Rules For Radicals), he never joined political or other movements. Not a Communist, Socialist or Marxist.

A secular Jew, he nonetheless worked closely with Catholic clergy developing community organizations in Chicago's slums with the strong support of the Archdiocese. He also won praise from Catholic philosopher Jaques Maritain, a scholar of the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who told him "You are a Thomist, dear Saul, a practical Thomist." Gingrich, a recent Catholic convert, has curiously managed to ignore those facts.

Alinsky's son, David, agrees that the best explanation for Gingrich's attacks on his father is his name, as he told Michael Miner in the online Chicago Reader:

David Alinsky thinks one reason why the right believes it can tar Obama with Saul Alinsky's name is the name itself. "It's foreign sounding, Russian or Polish or something Middle European," says David. "That kind of folks could never be trusted anyway. He's probably Jewish, and we know all about how those Jews are. We're all for Israel, but we don't like the Jews."

In David's view, it's "almost immaterial" whether Gingrich has any idea what Saul Alinsky actually thought and did. The point is, he serves Gingrich's purposes--which are "to set him up as a sort of Willy Horton/swift boat kind of individual, some boogieman..."

Gal Beckerman has a similar reaction, in an article in The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, headlined "Gingrich's Anti-Semitic Dog Whistle: Saul Alinsky:"

[J]ust think about what his name sounds like spit out of the mouth of Gingrich with not a small measure of disdain. It sounds like a Jewish name... the effect is something like this: Obama's ideological mentor is a Jew and somehow foreign.

One southern reader commented on Beckerman's article:

Trust me, there's plenty of racism left in the South, in particular, plenty of anti-Semitism. White, conservative Christians may profess to love Israel, but a lot of them still have problems with Jews.
Once Gingrich started using Saul Alinsky as a mantra, I asked people I know what they knew about Alinsky. Very few could place him -- one an American history major, the other poli sci -- but everyone else guessed he was Jewish.

Gingrich gets a twofer here. Obama is a black foreigner, a "Kenyan anti-colonial," as Gingrich has called him. And his spiritual mentor is a different type foreigner, a Jew, which is almost as bad to many in Newt's audiences.

Ironically, as David Margolick has pointed out, about the only thing keeping Gingrich in the GOP race is $10 million from Jewish casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and his wife (plus $1 million more from other family members). Apparently, for all their generosity toward Israel and other Jewish causes, the Adelsons don't mind some anti-Semitism encouraged by their favorite politician.