Boston It’s just makes a cold day even colder when it starts with reading an obituary in the Boston Globe about Nick von Hoffman dying at Rockport, Maine at 88 years old.
For von Hoffman the early part of this career in Chicago when he was a community organizer and the chief lieutenant of Saul Alinsky is almost a footnote to the more mainstream prominence he attracted as a columnist for the Washington Post, the liberal side of the television commentary debate called “Point Counterpoint,” or even his best-selling book about the notorious fixer Roy Cohn from McCarthy to Trump and others. But, community organizers know von Hoffman as the lead organizer for the then path-breaking and famous, TWO, The Woodlawn Organization.
In 2010 Nick wrote a reflection of Alinsky as he was having a strange revival as a tactical textbook for the right wing, quoted liberally by James O’Keefe, the video provocateur among others. Nick arranged to call me in 2009 for some background or another that I don’t recall precisely this minute, but it was largely because he wanted to draw a straight line between Alinsky and ACORN. We had a cordial and lengthy conversation, but the quid pro quo for my participation was getting the chance to ask him some questions that had always intrigued me about the paths taken – and not taken – by Alinsky and his team then.
I had often quoted a line attributed to von Hoffman when he decided to shelve organizing and try his hand at journalism. He had run a giant voter registration effort in Chicago shortly before that where they had registered thousands of new voters, 8000 sticks in my memory, and he was quoted saying in essence that despite this major effort, it made no difference in the election and in Chicago politics, and that was the wake-up call that led him away from organizing. I asked him about that campaign and his comment which was determinedly political, and why Alinsky and his successors had always so militantly avoided politics. Was it the power of the Daley machine in Chicago, and the feeling that it couldn’t be beaten at the polls, so it was better to avoid the contest?
Responding, Nick claimed that Alinsky had never avoided politics or encouraged organizations to not be political, which was contrary to every conversation and piece of evidence to the contrary. After a couple of more questions along this line as well as their positions on women organizers and other subjects, I figured out Nick’s mission. He was writing the book as a counterpoint of another sort. He wanted to update Alinsky to modern organizing and contemporary progressive practice, including ACORN’s. He was going to marry his own memoir to the new currency of Alinsky and community organizing after the election of Obama who also had his short stint in the work.
This was a legacy project. We should all have been lucky enough to work with Nick when he was a great organizer, and we would all be so fortunate to have him guard, protect, and invent a legacy when it matters, as a last gift of friendship to a comrade-in-arms.