Saul Alinsky is a real person who had a real intellectual influence on the young lives of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom studied his advice for politically organizing the poor and marginal. But the Saul Alinsky who has registered in American politics is a shadowy bogeyman rather than an actual figure, whose name symbolizes a deeper belief on the right that Obama lies far outside the American historical tradition and has kept his true, radical motives almost completely hidden throughout his political career.
Alinsky has returned, in the form of a Washington Free Beacon report that has unearthed a brief exchange of letters between Clinton and Alinsky from 1971, shortly after Clinton graduated law school. Clinton met with Alinsky several times in the course of writing her thesis about him, which is known. The Free Beacon story incrementally builds on our knowledge of the relationship. “You are being rediscovered again as the New Left–type politicos are finally beginning to think seriously about the hard work and mechanics of organizing,” writes Clinton to Alinsky.
Nothing in the letters reveals an especially deep ideological imprint. The Free Beacon’s write-up hypes the connection, but fails to mention the closing line of Clinton’s letter — “Hopefully we can have a good argument sometime in the future.” This line captures the mutual respect mixed with acknowledged disagreement that seems to characterize the relationship. (The Free Beacon points out that Clinton’s letter was “paid for with stamps featuring Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” but completely misses the truly relevant aspect of this, which is that Clinton bought stamps honoring a close ally of Joseph Stalin.)
Clinton has a very long record in public life dating from the 1970s, when she played an active role in her husband’s governorship, through the Clinton administration, and her own Senate career and term as Secretary of State. The right’s interest in Alinsky is designed less to augment and deepen an understanding of her record than to supercede it.
Dinesh D’Souza, one of the conservatives who has depicted Obama as an alien and secretive figure, has made this point in almost explicit terms. “A lot of people think that Hillary is like Bill and say ‘We want Billary back in the White House’ because of that,” he explained in a July appearance on ABC News’ This Week, “The point we make in the film is ‘no’ and there actually is a bridge connecting Hillary to Barack, and that bridge is Saul Alinsky.”
If conservatives want to sever Hillary Clinton from her husband’s popular administration, this is a way to do it. You may have fond memories of the Clinton years, but this long game is a mere front. Hillary Clinton is actually a radical Alinsky disciple, and after biding her time through roughly 45 years of mainstream Democratic politics, the hidden leftist will finally emerge.
That, again, is a way to do it. It’s not necessarily a good way.