Saul Alinsky is a name most people don't know, so why does Newt Gingrich drop Alinsky's name at every opportunity without explaining who he is? Because it is not what the Republican presidential candidate says that counts; it is what his audiences feel when he says it.
"Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of [President Barack] Obama," the Republican presidential candidate said on CNN last weekend.
"I believe in the Constitution; I believe in the Federalist Papers," the former speaker of the House told a Jacksonville, Fla., audience Monday. "Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and secular European socialist bureaucracy."
Can you feel it? Talking about the late, great Chicago-based community organizer this way is a "dog whistle," in political lingo. It is heard in special ways by those who are tuned in to the conservative blogo-sphere, which can't seem to get enough of Alinsky, especially when it enables bloggers to link words like "radical" and "socialist" to the former Chicago community organizer now sitting in the White House.
Having covered some of the Chicago community groups that Alinsky helped launch, I find Gingrich's demonization to be ironic. In many ways, the Georgia Republican has more in common with the Alinsky model of activism than Obama does.
For example, one of the most memorable rules in Alinsky's popular "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals" instructs: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Watching Gingrich go after the media in debates by personalizing figures like CNN's John King and Fox's Juan Williams made me wonder whether Gingrich was following Alinsky's gospel.
Obama, by contrast, only reluctantly turned to a personalizing and polarizing populism in recent months, after almost three years of fierce obstruction by congressional Republicans. Many Obama supporters urged him to get more Alinsky-tough -- like Gingrich.
In fact, quite a number of conservative-thought leaders hate Alinsky but love his books. His advice shows how to get results, regardless of whether you're a lefty or righty.
"The best way to describe Alinsky is a 'pragmatic populist,' " Sanford D. Horwitt, author of "Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy" told me in a telephone interview. "Alinsky had no patience for rigid ideologues."
The sincerest form of flattery may come from conservative adaptations of Alinsky's model like David Kahane's "Rules for Radical Conservatives" and the very similarly titled Michael Patrick Leahy's "Rules for Conservative Radicals."
By contrast, the left-progressive Occupy Wall Street movement could use more Alinsky advice, in my view. Alinsky insisted, first and foremost, that organizers have a clear agenda and a plan for achieving it before beginning their protest. The occupiers have neither, which makes me wonder how they would know victory if they achieved it.
Yet, as much as the right begrudgingly admires Alinsky, conservative political correctness prevents many from admitting it. It's easier to police their ranks by pinning on a soft-on-Alinsky label. Sarah Palin, for example, recently accused Gingrich's Republicans critics of practicing "Alinsky tactics at their worst." Hardly. But she probably hasn't read much of the real Saul.
In rebuttal, we have Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner labeling Gingrich a "Saul Alinsky Republican," citing the Newtster's John King attack. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry might say, "Oops!"
I'm changing my view of Gingrich's Alinsky obsession. It might be the result of love more than hate. After all, they have so much in common.