Saul Alinsky: Who is he and why is Newt Gingrich talking about him?

9:19 AM, Jan 27, 2012   |    comments
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When Newt Gingrich speaks these days, it's almost certain you'll hear him mention three names: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and Saul Alinsky.

If you're wondering who Saul Alinsky is, you're not alone. He's not running for office. In fact, he's dead, and has been for almost 40 years.

Alinsky was was born in 1909 and died when Barack Obama was just 10 years old. Yet, Gingrich seizes every opportunity to link Alinsky to the President, including twice during Gingrich's visit to St. Petersburg on Tuesday.

"He represents a big government," Gingrich said of Obama. "A Saul Alinsky radical vision of an American future."

Then later, he asked listeners, "And you think Saul Alinsky knew America better than the founding fathers?"

Yet, if you ask people who Saul Alinsky was, he's hardly a household name. So, who was he?

Like Barack Obama, Alinsky was a community organizer in Chicago. His book "Rules for Radicals" is embraced by grassroots organizations for its methods, but not always its politics.

Alinsky was known for mobilizing poor people and minorities, getting them to the polls.

"I'm not sure why anyone would think that's bad, unless you're one of the people with power and don't want to give it up," said USF political professor Michael Gibbons.

Gibbons says by mentioning Alinsky's name over and over, Gingrich hopes, perhaps, to try and make Alinsky a buzzword. It was the same kind of thorn in Obama's side during the 2008 campaign when he was associated with ACORN and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

"I think that what Gingrich is counting on is that nobody knows who he is," said Gibbons.

But Alinksy's ideals resonate with people from across the political spectrum. The Occupy movement and even staunch conservatives within the Tea Party have embraced his organizing tactics.

In fact, anyone who feels their voice has no chance of being heard amid the power and influence of big money might relate to Alinsky.

Ironically, it's a populist concept Newt Gingrich himself embraced Tuesday even as he seemingly demonized Alinsky's name. "Governor Romney will have vastly more money than I will, but we'll have more people than he will. This is exactly what happened in South Carolina, and people power beats money power every time," he told an applauding crowd of supporters.

"That's almost a quote from Saul Alinsky," said Gibbons. "In fact, if he were to write that down and not put it in quotation marks and footnote it, he probably would be subject to issues of plagiarism."

Professor Gibbons says Gingrich may be taking a bit of a risk invoking Alinsky's name; there are plenty of people out there these days, he says, who just may agree with his political philosophy.

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