Hillary Clinton and Saul Alinsky: Who Knew?



September 22, 2014; Christian Science Monitor

How exciting! When young Hillary Rodham, now Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a young Wellesley college student writing her college thesis on community organizing, she got to know Saul Alinsky, the founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation and author of Rules for Radicals, and kept up a correspondence with him for some years afterwards.

In the context of Hillary Clinton’s all-but-inevitable presidential campaign, her correspondence with Alinsky is just about assured to become an issue for her Republican critics. Does her relationship with Alinsky make Clinton, seen by many as a mainstream Democratic politician in contrast to more left-wing potential challengers such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, more vulnerable to conservative charges that she is really a closet “radical”?

Remember that Hillary Rodham was writing her college thesis on community organizing in 1968, a very different time than today. But also remember that Alinsky offered the young Rodham a job, which she turned down, despite, as she told him in one letter from 1971, having “survived [Yale] law school, slightly bruised, with my belief in and zest for organizing intact.”

She might have been attracted to Alinsky’s brilliant organizing instincts, but the similarity between Alinsky and Rodham seems to have been pragmatism. Alinsky’s organizing strategy wasn’t really ideological. Rules for Radicals is a manual of techniques for common people to bring powerful institutions to heel, without an ideological framework. Alinsky would consider nearly anything that might work, including his threat at one point to convene a “fart in” at a Rochester Philharmonic concert.

Fending off critiques from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders on the left and a likely panoply of putative Republican presidential candidates on the right, Hillary Clinton comes off as a political pragmatist, avoiding the shoals of ideological extremes as she navigates her way to Democratic Party acclamation. The difference between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Saul Alinsky is that she chose to work from within the political system while he worked from the outside. Some of Alinsky’s tactics don’t seem to fit the campaign strategy of a mainstream Democratic presidential candidate.—Rick Cohen


  • 76 and still active

    Rules for Radicals is being used by the Tea Party with only a few word changes which I loudly remind anyone who calls Hillary a “closet radical” within my hearing range — and I can still muted conversations across the room. I also hand-out copies to my liberal friends who have forgotten that the techniques still work.

    As someone who worked and learned under Saul Alinksy’s leadership in the Temporary Woodlawn Organization (TWO) in South Chicago in the late ’50s and early ’60s, I have adapted and used his techniques and the people who have followed him effectively in Chicago, Philadelphia Inglewood, Montreal, Los Angeles, and now the Inland Empire of Southern California. My actions have been more lady-like such as leading a parade of mothers patrolling in front of stores that sell adult toys and theaters that show porno movies; suggesting advocacy actions to Head Start parents; and encouraging some rather unusual partners for community partnerships. I’ve loved every minute of my underground rebellions and am, of course, voting for Hillary and looking for new opportunities to bring communities back to life.

  • Andy

    There are several typos in this article – her maiden name is Rodham, not Rodman.

  • Rick Cohen

    you’re right Andy; I was out on a personal day yesterday and never had a chance to watch the proofing process on my articles. I hope that the article had her as Rodham correctly at least a couple of times. Thanks for pointing it out, and apologies from me.

  • mrcrustycrab

    Two years on and… I’m guessing that Hillary is wishing that she had run a more radicalized campaign after all.

    I voted for her, of course I did. But I cursed that No. 2 pencil all the while.

    I doubt that I will live long enough to see another presidential election, but I’m guessing that a hard rain is going to fall before then.

    • ruth

      Oh musty old crab – I feel your pain. Mollusk’s aged mother

  • Freedom Rules

    You mean communism, No Thanks