So-Called Correspondence between Hillary and Saul Alinsky

Ideas and Issues
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