So-Called Correspondence between Hillary and Saul Alinsky

Sol Alinsky with protesters. African American woman holding sign " Kodak hire the poor" and white man holding sign "U. of Rochester S.D.S. supports FIGHT"

Saul Alinsky with protesters. African American woman holding sign ” Kodak hire the poor” and white man holding sign “U. of Rochester S.D.S. supports FIGHT”

Montreal   The rightwing blogosphere makes quite a bit of what they call “letters” between Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, and Saul Alinsky, the community organizing headliner of the time in summer of 1971. Closer inspection finds one letter sent from Hillary to Saul at his office in Chicago and no response from Saul, but a reply from his secretary, Georgia Harper.

Though many of the conservative websites refer to Hillary’s letter as “fan mail,” it is not. A more modern description would label it plain and simple “networking,” except there obviously was no “net” to work then, so she made do with what a bright, young woman had at hand and fashioned a lively, sharp, and clever piece of correspondence. The Hillary of her letter then would have clearly been fun to know. She was winning and open, and not the guarded and calculating politician that many paint her as today. At the time she was in the middle of her legal education at Yale Law School and a summer intern at a “movement” law firm of sorts in the San Francisco Bay Area, living in Berkeley.

Knowing and having written about Alinsky probably gave her a certain cache in the firm a notch above just being a law student, and the letter seems mainly about keeping the bridge at least minimally maintained between Alinsky and herself.  As young women from Wellesley were undoubtedly taught, she begins the letter with pure flattery asking whether his new book, Rules for Radicals, had been published and claiming to need “new material” after her “one-thousandth conversation about Reveille,” his book from 1949, Reveille for Radicals. The new book had been published several months before, so there’s no question she was gilding the lily, since she would have absolutely run into it in any bookstore in New Haven or Berkeley, if she had been really looking.

For all of the right’s mudslinging, she is catty and dismissive about the New Left, as she was in her thesis, saying that they are “rediscovering” Alinsky which is more flattery, but more tellingly arguing that “New Left-type politicos are finally beginning to think seriously about the hard work and mechanics of organizing….” This was neither an unfair nor an uncommon criticism at the time. She also assures Alinsky that her “belief in and zest for organizing” is “intact,” which only proves that she was whip smart about political realities, nothing more.

If anything, the letter establishes that she was in fact not really close to Alinsky. She makes the case by inference that they share “a commitment to a free and open society,” but that’s about as far as it goes, and that’s just liberal mouthwash, certainly not fire breathing radicalism. She speaks of their “biennial conversations.” She apologies for not responding to a note from him a year earlier during the “Yale-Cambodia madness.” Her “regards to Mrs. Harper,” Saul’s longtime secretary who later answers this letter, rather than Alinsky, invariably means that she has been long accustomed to making appointments through Harper in the past, rather than doing so directly, and for the same reason Mrs. Harper later does not hesitate to open the letter she sent to Alinsky marked “Personal” and respond.

Finally, she needles Alinsky and in a cute, clever way ribs him about rumors she has heard that he is traveling to the Philippines and whether or not it’s a “CIA-sponsored junket to exotica.” As we now know, his six-week trip to the Philippines and Korea, and Japanese scholars of organizing believe briefly to Tokyo, ended up planting deep seeds that inspired community organizing work in Manila and Seoul that flower and bear fruit to this day. She closes saying, “Hopefully we can have a good argument sometime in the near future.” Another pinprick, but telling. This was not a young devotee, but a smart young woman on the make trying to keep all channels wide open for the future, while she still tried to figure out her place in the world and where she could make change in some way compatible to her skills and interests.

I might wish it was more, and the right might wish it was more, but that’s all that’s there.

Al Green – A Change Is Gonna Come


Hillary Rodham on Saul Alinsky, Community Organizing, and Change

Hillary_lede.grid-6x2Montreal     I knew that Hillary Clinton, when still Hillary Rodham, had written her senior thesis at Wellesley College on Saul Alinsky and his work, and I had even talked to her about it briefly over lunch once in Little Rock in the early 1970’s, but I had never actually read it until the link was recently forwarded to me by Camilo Viveiros of the George Wiley Institute in Rhode Island.  It was different than I expected it to be.  First it was much better than I had imagined it might be as a senior thesis.  Secondly, it was different than the reports I had read years ago, when she last ran for President.  Yes, it was a something of a rejection of the Alinsky methods, though admiring of Alinsky, but her objection was largely that his methodology – and vision – did not go far enough, not that it was either too radical or not traditional enough.

She was a diligent student and reading the sources and footnotes, she was a fellow traveler well read in James Ridgeway and Andrew Kopkind, the dominant left journalists of that era and beyond, critical of Daniel Moynihan’s critique, and astutely embracing Warren Haggstrom, a major, though often unrecognized, intellectual influence on all of community organizing, then and now.She also understood deeply, but perhaps too uncritically, the critique of Alinsky and his work by Frank Reissman, the founder of our journal, Social Policy  that I still edit and publish.  She was spot-on in recognizing the Alinsky debt to union organizing and structural models in a way that contemporaries often miss.  On the whole, her thesis is a surprisingly solid piece of work and a good grasp of the issues, while being justly admiring of Alinsky and his belief and commitment to democracy and respectful of community organizing and its role in making change.

She was a left-critic of the War on Poverty, saying…

All too often the War on Poverty with confused intentions and armed with misinterpreted social theory fulfilled Moynihan’s concluding description of the community action programs: “…the soaring rhetoric, the minimum performance; the feigned constancy, the private betrayal; in the end…the sell-out.”

She was not a fan of student organizing in the late 1960’s or what she calls “New Left strategists,”

The problems inherent in such an approach, including elitist arrogance and repressive intolerance, have become evident during recent university crises.  The engineers of disruption, lacking Alinsky’s flexibility in dealing with their “enemy” (i.e. administrators, trustees, etc.), become hardened into non-negotiable situations.  Conflicts then run the possibility of escalating into zero sum games where nobody wins.

Her real critique of Alinsky is that he didn’t go far enough, and the evidence is plentiful in a number of her remarks in the thesis even as she walks a fine line to balance her academic objectives…

  • He realizes that radical goals have to be achieved often by non-radical, even “anti-radical” means.
  • Perhaps, the Alinsky model’s emphasis on local issues and goals determined locally diverts energies from wider or coalition organizations.
  • His belief that the poor can translate apathy into power and then use that power responsibly has, in some cases, proven true. In others, the transition has been dysfunctional either for the community or for the cause of radical change.

Tellingly, even the title of her thesis, “There is Only the Fight…” is a thinly veiled critique that she shares in part with Reissman that he lacked “vision” for a more radical, national change.  She is clearly heavily influenced by her own Wellesley professor, Annemarie Shimony, in putting her perspective together and Shimony’s view that Alinsky was “a showman rather than an activist.”

Undoubtedly, then Hillary Rodham was a “child of the 60’s” who believed it was a time and opportunity for comprehensive change:

Often the application of the Alinsky model in geographically-bound lower class areas assumes an almost bootstrap formula which is too conservative for our present situation.  A People’s Organization of local organizations can at best create new levels of harmony among its members and secure a few material gains.  It is not oriented toward harmonizing competing metropolitan interests in a concert of governmental restructuring.

Clearly, she liked Alinsky and much of the model, but didn’t like the “messy” of student organizing and the New Left, compared to the pragmatic, flexibility of Alinsky approach even while seeing it as lacking “vision” and “too conservative for our present situation.”  In 1969, she wasn’t ready for the barricades, but she wanted to figure out a way to make comprehensive change.   Her thesis is a helpful place to build a more nuanced understanding of Hillary and her quest perhaps, contrary to what many have argued, both pro and con.

ODETTA – This Little Light of Mine