Politicians frequently make strange allusions, but perhaps none is stranger than Newt Gingrich’s continual linking of Barack Obama to Saul Alinsky.
The former speaker never misses an opportunity to mention Alinsky. In last Thursday’s CNN debate, Gingrich referred to the president as “a Saul Alinsky radical.” In his victory speech after the South Carolina primary, Gingrich said, “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” And just this week campaigning in Florida, he said, “We need somebody who is a conservative… who can clearly draw the contrast between the Declaration of Independence and the writings of Saul Alinsky.”
So who is Saul Alinsky? And why is Newt Gingrich talking about him?
Alinsky, a community organizer and writer, was born in Chicago in 1909, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He worked his way through the University of Chicago while majoring in archaeology. After two years of graduate school he turned to community organizing. During the Great Depression he worked for the CIO as a labor organizer. For the rest of his life, Alinsky labored to improve the living conditions of the poor, urging the powerless to organize to change the status quo. Alinsky died in 1962, when Barry Obama was eleven-years-old.
Certainly, Newt Gingrich would fear a politically independent community organizer who helped the poor, white and black, and worked to improve democracy. If Alinsky were alive today, he no doubt would be thrilled by the Occupy Wall Street movement, a movement Gingrich has excoriated in the past.
But Alinsky has been dead for four decades; he’s hardly a threat to stability. Why, then, does the former speaker mention Alinsky’s name so often?
Most obviously, Gingrich, in linking the president to Alinsky, is arguing Barack Obama is a radical out of tune with American values and beliefs. Alinsky and Obama do have a few things in common: Both lived in Chicago, both were community organizers. That’s about it. Indeed, a cogent case can be made that the red-hot Chicago radical of the past would have been disappointed in the cool establishment president of today.
But Gingrich is after more than superficial connections. Note his references to American exceptionalism and the Declaration of Independence. Not only is he painting Alinsky, and by association, President Obama as radical; he is suggesting that they are somehow not American, somehow outside the mainstream of the national experience.
Gingrich’s allusions go a step further: He and his audience know that to link the president to Saul Alinsky is to portray Mr. Obama, once again, as the “other.”
The speaker’s audiences may not know much about Saul Alinsky. Never mind, Gingrich tells them just enough when he uses the word “radical.” The audiences know that the very name, Saul Alinksy, like the name Barack Hussein Obama, reminds them of something different, of the “other.” This is red meat to audiences in which some believe the president was foreign born, a Muslim, and not eligible to hold the office.
Gingrich is not above playing to his audience. When he calls Mr. Obama a “food stamp president,” he appeals to lingering racial stereotypes; similarly, when he refers to the “radical” Saul Alinsky, he suggests antisemitic stereotypes.
The incongruity of it all is that Gingrich, at least in temperament, is much closer to Alinsky than is the president. The former speaker is, after all, an intemperate man who will use any tool to advance his cause, which in his case is himself. Gingrich is not afraid to smash things en route to his goal.
The good news is the more things Gingrich smashes, the better the president’s reelection prospects.