Gingrich points to 'radical' Alinsky in criticizing Obama

Nearly 40 years after his death, Saul Alinsky's name is back in the news, peppered throughout presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's speeches.

A native Chicagoan, Alinsky was "the father of community organizing," said Sanford D. Horwitt, author of "Let Them Call Me Rebel: A Biography of Saul Alinsky."

"He invented community organizing … this very unique form of political action," Horwitt said, adding that Alinsky believed the goal of organizing people was to give them power.

It's that "community organizer" moniker that Gingrich is attempting to use in comparing Alinsky to President Barack Obama, who first came to Chicago as a community organizer practicing Alinsky's model, according to historians.

After winning the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday, Gingrich referenced Obama's "Saul Alinsky radicalism," painting it in a negative light.

The association with a so-called "radical" with Chicago ties may call to mind the Bill Ayers controversy from the 2008 presidential campaign. But a comparison of Alinsky to Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground group responsible for several bombings in 1969 and the 1970s, doesn't go far.

Born in January 1909, Alinsky grew up on the West Side, studied criminology at the University of Chicago and worked in state prisons before deciding he could make a bigger difference at the community level, said former Washington Post reporter Nicholas von Hoffman, who wrote "Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky."

Von Hoffman, who before becoming a journalist worked alongside Alinsky from 1953 to 1962, said Alinsky fought for fair working conditions, affordable housing and any cause that "boiled down to one thing: organizing people so they have a decent shake."

Alinsky's tactics included tying up bank teller lines with volunteers repeatedly exchanging a $100 bill for pennies and vice versa as a way to protest banking institutions, said John Kretzmann, professor at Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy. Another involved Alinsky's followers threatening to occupy all the bathrooms atO'Hare International Airportfor an entire day. The threat alone granted Alinsky a meeting with then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, Kretzmann said.

"Newt realizes this is just an act, saying Alinsky is a dangerous radical. Gingrich is enough of a historian to know what Alinsky was about," Horwitt said. "This is something that he is feeding to a part of the conservative right. (Alinsky) was not a bomb-throwing radical by any means."

Who was Saul Alinsky?

Born: Jan. 30, 1909, in Chicago

Died: June 12, 1972, in Carmel, Calif.

Roles: sociologist with the Institute for Juvenile Research, Chicago; co-founder, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council; executive director, Industrial Areas Foundation; author, "Reveille for Radicals," "Rules for Radicals" and "John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography."