Column: Hillary Clinton — a student of Saul Alinsky

Mitch Mulhall

Mitch Mulhall

“Yes, we need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who-knows-what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable.”

— Hillary Rodham Clinton on Donald J. Trump, speech to AIPAC, March 21, 2016

“I feel confident that I could persuade a millionaire on a Friday to subsidize a revolution on Saturday out of which he would make a huge profit on Sunday even though he was certain to be executed on Monday.”

— Saul D. Alinsky

Both quotes shine light on a wealthy individual and both use the iteration of weekdays to highlight change. While their rhetoric creates similar expressions, that’s the least Hillary Clinton and Saul Alinsky have in common.

The popular narrative about Saul Alinsky is that he was a tough, brash individual who fought for justice. He reputedly worked as a labor organizer, battled for civil rights and brought hope to the poor. He may have coined the term community organizer. As with most popular narratives, a closer look helps.

Alinsky was born in 1909 to Jewish Russian immigrants in a Chicago ghetto. At a time when economic mobility was exceedingly difficult, Saul’s father instilled in his son a distrust of capitalism and minimized the connection between hard work and economic reward.

As a college student, Alinsky developed a method for eating hearty meals for the price of just two cups of coffee, and he shared this method under the idea that there is a priority of rights, and that the right to eat trumps the right to make a profit. Alinsky went on to study criminology in graduate school.

In a Playboy interview shortly before his death in 1972, Alinsky describes how, while doing research for a graduate thesis, he achieved entrée into Al Capone’s inner circle: When no one else would listen, Alinsky lent a willing ear to a retelling of Big Ed Stash’s story about his conquest of a Detroit redhead. His attention paid off:

“[Ed] introduced me to Frank Nitti, known as the Enforcer, Capone’s number-two man, and actually in de facto control of the mob because of Al’s income-tax rap. Nitti took me under his wing. I called him the Professor and I became his student. Nitti’s boys took me everywhere, showed me all the mob’s operations, from gin mills and whorehouses and bookie joints to the legitimate businesses they were beginning to take over. Within a few months, I got to know the workings of the Capone mob inside out.”

— Saul Alinsky, Playboy Interview

Alinsky spent two years as a “nonparticipating observer” of Capone’s mob. “I learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob,” Alinsky told Playboy, “lessons that stood me in good stead later on, when I was organizing.” Alinsky may have also learned that a community’s political arena is as ripe an environment for mob tactics as the Chicago streets, without as many opportunities to get killed.

So just what did Alinsky mean by “organizing?” In 1964, Alinsky “organized” the community of Rochester to pressure Eastman Kodak into hiring 600 of their unemployed over a 24 month period. To do this, Alinsky set his sights on the Rochester Philharmonic, a major recipient of Eastman largess, and the community’s shining pearl.

“I suggested we pick a night when the music would be relatively quiet and buy 100 seats. The 100 blacks scheduled to attend the concert would then be treated to a preshow banquet in the community consisting of nothing but huge portions of baked beans. Can you imagine the inevitable consequences within the symphony hall? The concert would be over before the first movement — another Freudian slip — and Rochester would be immortalized as the site of the world’s first fart-in.”

— Saul Alinsky, Playboy Interview

Fortunately for Rochester’s 1964 Philharmonic-goers, Alinsky’s fart-in never came to pass. His Rochester community organizing effort languished for several years.

In the meantime, a Wellesley College coed submitted a thesis titled, “There is Only the Fight … An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.” In her thesis’s acknowledgments, Hillary D. Rodham thanks Alinsky for his ideas, assistance and even a job offer. She then evaluates three Alinsky community organizing efforts, one of which was Rochester. In her view, Rochester eventually forced this grudging recognition by Eastman:

“Eventually, recognizing FIGHT’s legitimate demands and responding to political pressure, Kodak wired FIGHT: ‘Kodak recognizes that FIGHT, as a broad-based community organization, speaks in behalf of the basic needs of the Negro poor in the Rochester area.’ Kodak agreed to work with FIGHT but made it very clear that ‘[W]e’re not in the welfare business — that’s the government’s job.’”

(FIGHT was an acronym for a Rochester group: Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today.)

— Hillary D. Rodham, “There is Only the Fight,” May 2, 1969

Assessing its efficacy, Ms. Rodham acknowledged the effort’s failure to secure work for Rochester’s unemployed. She lamented this failure and ascribed it to corporate delay tactics.

If ends justify means, perhaps they should have mobilized the Rochester fart-in after all. Then again, if you could pull tactics like these at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, why fart around in Rochester?

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident.

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