ALINSKY 101. When Hillary Clinton graduated Wellesley in 1969, she turned down a job offer with community organizer and University of Chicago sociologist Saul Alinsky and headed to Yale Law School. In 1985, Barack Obama deferred law school to work with an Alinsky-inspired group on Chicago's South Side, partnering with black churches to advocate for better housing, job training, and other services for people in poverty.
As Garance has noted, Ryan Lizza's TNR piece on Obama's organizing days is a must read. So is this MSNBC story on Clinton's undergraduate thesis about Alinsky. Reporter Bill Dedman actually reads the much-mythologized thesis, which critiques Alinsky's methodologies as too focused on small-scale change within communities already decimated by systemic problems of segregation and poverty. (Incidentally, right-wingers have suggested Clinton's thesis, which at her request was kept under lock and key by Wellesley during her husband's administration, might contain proof of HRC's pinko-Commie sympathies. But in fact, 21-year old Hillary was a welfare reformer waiting to happen. She criticized President Johnson's War on Poverty, writing, "A cycle of dependency has been created which ensnares its victims into resignation and apathy.") As Clinton noted in her autobiography Living History, "I agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas, particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves. But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn't."
It's fascinating that while Clinton thought Alinsky's shortcoming was his failure to build a politically powerful national movement, Obama ended up frustrated with the Alinsky methodology due to what he saw as its lack of heart. Rule number 5 of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals is "Ridicule is a man's most potent weapon." But as reported in Lizza's piece, Obama just wasn't down with that -- he inherently understood that even the powerful were constrained by circumstances beyond their control, and sought to reach out to them through understanding. These experiences obviously account for Obama's reliance (I would say over-reliance) today on the soaring rhetoric of bipartisanship. I agree with Lizza that this doesn't mean Obama can't play dirty; as we've seen, he has surrounded himself with people who know how to do just that. But it does mean that voters may start to notice a disconnect between Obama's words and his actions. Radical community organizing aside, Obama just may not be that different from any other politician with some good ideas, and the calculating ambition necessary to see them realized.