To terrorize an audience, stimulate its imagination to work overtime. Hitchcock understood this—we never do see a knife pierce flesh in Psycho‘s famous shower scene. Similarly, conservative auteurs base their claim that Barack Obama is an unconstitutional alien in the Oval Office not on a birth certificate that says he was born in a foreign country but on the lack of one meeting their high standard for authenticity that says he wasn’t. And the case that Obama is a dangerous socialist hell-bent on destroying the capitalist system that allows any man, no matter how poor, to dream of getting rich hangs on—
Well, on not much more than the information contained in the theater poster that illustrates this column.
Let’s take a look at this poster.
It’s red—and that right there, like the darkening water that swirls down Janet Leigh’s drain, is plenty suggestive. It touts a play called The Love Song of Saul Alinsky, Alinsky being the notorious community organizer from Chicago who wrote books with titles like Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. On it, fists are raised—meaning insurrection is in the air.
And down at the very bottom, crawling across the poster in small print, it mentions the panel discussions that will follow the Sunday performances. The panelists are that era’s usual “progressive” suspects: Leon Despres, Monsignor Jack Egan, Studs Terkel . . .
And state senator Barack Obama.
Obama was on the panel that talked about Alinsky the last Sunday of the play’s run at the Blue Rider Theatre in Pilsen. Neither Pam Dickler, who directed the Terrapin Theatre production, nor Gary Houston, who played Alinsky, can remember a word Obama said. But he impressed them. “You never would have known he was a politician,” says Dickler. “He never said anything at all about himself. He came alone, watched the play, and during the panel discussion was entirely on point and brilliant. That evening I called my father, who’s a political junkie, and told him to watch out for this man, he’s going places.” Houston was just as taken by Obama—though he remembers him arriving in a group.
Whatever—it was a long time ago. Yet for some conservatives it may as well have been yesterday.
Early in his career, Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, and his archenemies have been making what they can of that for years. There are two ways of looking at this line in his resume. One is to see it as trivial. At the 2008 Republican Convention former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani praised the military and political record of John McCain and then chuckled, “On the other hand, you have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer. What? He worked—I said—I said, OK, OK, maybe this is the first problem on the resume. He worked as a community organizer. He immersed himself in Chicago machine politics.”
The other is to see it as subversive. The best way to do this is to tie Obama to Alinsky. Alinsky was an organizer all his life; Obama did it a few years, pronounced himself exasperated at how little he was accomplishing, and went into politics. But then, so did the Manchurian Candidate.
Three years ago, in the influential screed Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model, reformed left-winger David Horowitz maintained that no president before Obama so “owed his understanding of the political process to a man and a philosophy so outside the American mainstream, or so explicitly dedicated to opposing it.” That man was Alinsky, the master of “political nihilism”—his only goal “to take power from the Haves and give it to the Have-nots.” Horowitz cited unimpeachable evidence, a 2007 New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza: “When Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: ‘You want to organize for power!'”
Apparently Horowitz understands the world in roughly these terms: Liberalism—throw a starving man a fish every once in a while. Conservatism—teach him to fish so he can feed himself. Nihilism—also teach him to use his elbows to command space on the pier so he can actually put his line in the water.
Gary Houston tells me that four years ago he came across a right-wing blogger somewhere on the Internet who recalled the Love Song of Saul Alinsky poster and said that if the Forces of Light could only get hold of it they’d be able to blow the Obama presidential campaign out of the water. Houston also found himself quoted as telling some interviewer back in 1998 that Alinsky was a “really cool character.”
Houston couldn’t remember whom he’d said this to, but no doubt he did, and here was the remark now enjoying a second life, as a way to use the play to link Obama to Alinsky. A few weeks ago, when Newt Gingrich began hammering Obama as an “Alinsky radical,” Houston took another look around the Internet. And sure enough . . .
Aaron Klein is a senior reporter and the Jerusalem correspondent at WND, the website formerly known as WorldNetDaily and the self-described home of “uncompromising journalism.” He’s also the author of the book The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists. Klein wouldn’t have much to write about if it weren’t for the afternoon Obama went to see The Love Song of Saul Alinsky.
Houston spotted Klein’s report for WND in March of 2010. It seemed that in the late 1990s, while Obama was a director of Chicago’s Woods Fund, it had provided start-up funding to a school for community organizers; this was the Midwest Academy, cofounded by Paul Booth, who back in the 60s had been national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society. What’s more, he was married to Heather Booth, an “extremist organizer and dedicated disciple of radical community organizer Saul Alinsky.” To give us some idea of where her sympathies lay, Klein told us that in 1998 she and Obama had both taken part in a panel discussion on Alinsky:
“Obama participated in the discussion alongside other Alinskyites, including Booth, political analyst Aaron Freeman, Don Turner of the Chicago Federation of Labor and Northwestern University history professor Charles Paine. ‘Alinsky had so much fire burning within,’ stated local actor Gary Houston, who portrayed Alinsky in the play. ‘There was a lot of complexity to him. Yet he was a really cool character.'”
Houston also came across, on the website Bear Witness Central, a piece Klein wrote last June on a “union summit” in Washington D.C. at which Heather and Paul Booth both spoke. To flesh out the piece and anchor Obama to the summit, he dusted off his anecdote about the Alinsky play and the panel discussion.
And in October, on the site Liberty News Online, there was a Klein piece that repeated the June version of the anecdote word for word. Klein began by linking Occupy Wall Street with the notion that on 9-11 America got what it had coming; he continued by identifying Heather Booth as director of an “extremist” group plotting to disrupt the NATO and G-8 summits in Chicago in May; and to hammer home the intimate Booth-Obama connection, he wrapped up his piece with the Alinsky panel. Yet again Houston uttered the apparently immortal words, “He was a really cool character.”
That Obama, as president, will be hosting the meetings that his ideological sidekick is plotting to blow sky-high was not a consideration Klein allowed to ruffle his analysis. (Klein didn’t reply to my e-mail.)
But it is not only Klein. Alinsky is a sort of soccer ball left out on the right-wingers’ playground so any rambunctious passerby who wants to let off steam can give it a boot. I hear daily from the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama, and they’ve cut themselves in on the action. The other day the Campaign’s “Patriot Mary” sent a dispatch to “fellow patriots” from Wisconsin, where its forces are dug in to fight the recall action against Governor Scott Walker: “This marks the 2nd day in a row where the morning greeted us with snow—and the morning’s forecast calls for another burst of snow with temperatures dipping down into the teens. But guess what—through rain, sleet or snow we are going to stand up FOR Gov. Scott Walker and AGAINST the shameful tactics of Barack Obama and his Saul Alinsky-trained political thugs and hacks.”
I e-mailed the Campaign to find out more about the role of Alinsky, who if I understand right died in 1972. But they didn’t write back.