Hillary’s senior thesis about activist Saul Alinsky.
By Donna Schaper with Rake Morgan and Frank Marafiote contributing.
Edited by Frank Marafiote for the Internet.
(To read a PDF copy of the thesis, click here.)
With Hillary Clinton likely to pursue the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, questions about her intellectual and moral education abound. One of the major intellectual influences – perhaps an emotional one was well – was radical social philosopher and activist Saul Alinsky. As this story shows, Alinsky was both the ladder Hillary climbed to gain new perspectives on society – specifically the poor – and then, once there, a ladder she tossed aside when she no longer needed it.
Americans who graduated from high school in 1965 and college in 1969 were not just part of a population bubble — the “baby boomers” — but a cultural one as well. The children of the Sixties combined the typical young adult developmental cycle with a unique cycle in the life of this nation. They were not only trying to learn about dating, but also about foreign policy, ethics, and racism.
Hillary Clinton was quintessentially one of these people — a Sixties person, although we would hardly have recognized her as such. That she didn’t buy her wedding dress until the night before her wedding is not just a coincidence. It was also commonplace. Her generation was mixing private rites of passage with public ones, and it seemed right to do so. Hillary Clinton was a conformist to the extent that she mixed these personal and political levels early, at a time when most of the people did likewise.
As we search for social influences on the First Lady, we have to begin in this context, in the unique mix of the public and private that served as her environment as a young woman. She was as marked by her chronological age and the Age of Aquarius as most Sixties people were — and she is probably where she is today because she was even more influenced by it than the rest of us.
It is no accident that she chose to write about Saul Alinsky for her senior thesis at Wellesley College . As a social activist, Alinsky was as much a part of the Sixties as was Kennedy and King. He was in the background creating the foreground of interpretation:
“Power to the people” is a phrase coined by him as much as by Stokeley Carmichael. Like the headband, Hillary abandoned much of what influenced her back then. But still this heavy identification with her age and THE age continued in bold form right after she completed her senior thesis.
That people stood to applaud Hillary Clinton’s commencement speech — the first one given by a student at Wellesley — is another mark of her generation that she wears in her psyche. It had to matter to her that the classes before 1960 remained in their seats, not quite sure of what had just happened. Classes before 1930 didn’t even clap. From ‘60 on people were on their feet clapping.
This literal order of approval is important to our understanding of Hillary Clinton. And surely it is one of the reasons she’s shifted from her Sixties image to a more up-to-date one. She learned early on that people interpret things by their age. No one needs the tag of the Sixties any more. Her repudiation of the tag is one of the reasons that Wellesley College , at her request, does not release her senior thesis to the public. She doesn’t want to be identified with Alinsky or the Sixties any more than is absolutely necessary. Hillary is socially and personally based in the Sixties, not in its cultural but in its political dimension.
Probably because she had enough ballast psychologically and religiously from her family and church, she did not “drug out” during the Sixties. She was not one of the period’s casualties. But most Americans, including the younger ones, don’t understand this distinction yet about the Sixties. Say Sixties, and people today think, “drugged out.” Say Sixties, they think unshowered. Perpetual bad hair days. Hillary can’t afford the negative image of the Sixties. Thus she needed to leave as much of the Sixties behind her as possible. This repudiation of the Sixties began early in her life.
It’s the confusion in the public’s mind — not hers — that accounts for the distance she’s put between herself and her formative period. Alinsky’s thought has been badgered at the image level since the sixties. Say Alinsky and people think radical, that American word that now has a bad reputation.
Alinsky thought of himself as a radical in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Thomas Payne. He personified the American theory of pragmatism in his commitment to power. “Whatever works to get power to the people, use it.” That didn’t mean violence but rather serious attention to matters of power. Pact the meeting. Fill the streets. Flood the office with post cards. If that doesn’t work, find something that does, including humor.
At one point to gain attention from the Chicago city council, Alinsky threatened to flush all the toilets at O’Hare airport at once. Before the toilet flushing escapade ever had a chance to happen, the city council gave in and granted some demands. Another time, in Rochester , New York , Alinsky had a fart-in at the Eastman Kodak Board meeting. A baked bean supper had been organized for participants. Alinsky was irreverent, but that was his only real bow in the counter-cultural direction. Hillary acquired Alinsky’s pragmatism and his focus on strategy more than the humor and irreverence as a source for her own politics.
Hillary met Alinsky through the pastor at her high school church, the Park Ridge Methodist Church . Rev. Don Jones, then youth minister at the parish and running a youth program called “ University of Life ,” took his youth group to Chicago to meet not only Alinsky but also King and many of the other leaders of the Civil Rights movement.
To understand how Hillary developed her skills as an activist we have to first understand her religious back ground. One of 110 young people confirmed at the church at age 11, she had an unusually rigorous religious preparation. It was public instead of personal. That simple shift in perspective was the key foundation for her, as a Goldwater activist throughout high school and the daughter of a Republican. It allowed her to have an open heart to the suffering she saw in Chicago . Very few youth groups traveled as far as the South Side of Chicago to find God or religious formation.
Hillary acquired Alinsky ‘S pragmatism and his focus on strategy more than the humor and irreverence as a source for her own politics.
That she did, under the auspices of Rev. Jones, made not only the introduction to Alinsky possible, it also meant that she could hear firsthand what he had to say in a context that probably spoke louder than his words.
The poverty she saw in Chicago surely became part of the source of this person who is now running for president. Alinsky interpreted poverty with one point of view — that it is due to the lack of power of the poor. Hillary probably doesn’t believe that as much as a less sinister interpretation — that the poor are poor because of bad government policies. This tension became the tension of her senior thesis, the tension of her genuine suffering about the poor, and probably will remain the tension of her life.
In a sense, she’s still in a conversation with Alinsky, who believed that the poor could be organized on their own behalf. Hillary Clinton still seems to believe that the middle classes can do things to make life easier for the poor, and that is the lever she pulls most often. Her decision about the best way to create change ultimately led her down a path that made her a senator; had she made the other decision — to organize the poor — she would not be in government, but rather in that place where she learned so much — the “streets.”
Religion moderated the decisions she made, particularly since it was based in the suburban world of Park Ridge . Alinsky himself was not a religious man, though he depended heavily on organized religious constituencies. In Sanford Horwitt’s biography of Alinsky, Let Them Call Me A Rebel, Horwitt suggests that at many different levels Alinsky “used” religious constituencies like the Park Ridge church to legitimize serious political action. In this way, Hillary — even as a girl — was used by the movement. She added her consent later.
Alinsky’s manipulation of both the poor and the church is the most often repeated accusation against him. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton’s exposure to his ideas took place in a relatively open setting, as a by product of the University of Life . Rev. Jones arranged a trip to a Chicago ghetto so that his youth could meet with a group of black youths who hung around at a recreation center. There the program consisted of teenagers describing their reactions to Picasso’s Guernica . The youths met several times and also read Catcher in the Rye together. For the young, Republican Hillary, the difference in reaction between suburban and city youth was a major eye opener. Once eyes like hers were opened, it wouldn’t take them long in the Chicago of that day to find Alinsky.
Alinsky frequently used similar methods of experiential education — what Paolo Friere calls the”pedago – guey” of the oppressed. Here the oppressed were the teachers of those who were not oppressed. It was vintage Alinsky, borrowed by a young seminarian. Here we see the reason she eventually left behind both Alinsky and the Sixties. Her experience taught her to go other places. That the Sixties, Alinsky and religious faith taught her to learn from experience is the deeper and more enduring social source of her behavior.
Rev. Jones told Donnie Radcliffe in Hillary Clinton: A First Lady for Our Time that his goal with the youth group was “not just about personal salvation and pious escapism, but also about an authentic and deep quest for God and life’s meaning in the midst of worldly existence.” Thanks to Jones’ emphasis on the public aspect of religion, Hillary had the chance to meet Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Alinsky. Jones made arrangements for his group to meet King after King preached at the Sunday Evening Club in Chicago . With 2,500 other people at Orchestra Hall in Chicago , April 15, 1962, 15 year-old Hillary heard King preach a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Revolution.” To accuse her of taking this message literally would not be going too far. She has remained steadily fixed on a simple public theology and an alertness about political experience.
We unfortunately know very little about Jones’ cohort at the church, Rosalie Benziger, the Christian Education director. Surely she had prepared even deeper ground for the encounter with Chicago, Alinsky, King and poverty in the curriculum used during Sunday School. What we do know about Benziger is that she was concerned about the students’ reaction to the Kennedy assassination, and that she sent a letter to the entire 3,000 member congregation hoping that they wouldn’t begin finding Communists under every rock. “We knew that the children would be traumatized….” she had said. Benziger was right. These children were traumatized for longer than a generation. What’s significant in terms of Hillary Clinton’s development is that few Christian Education directors at the time reacted in this way, with a both political point to protect and a pastoral concern for children. The childrens’ safe world had been invaded by a larger life, and it would continue to be throughout the Sixties.
Alinsky would not have appealed to the Methodism in Hillary ‘s personality. He was much too profane, cursing a blue streak, smoking non-stop, and insulting many people who were as earnest as she was. The University of Life focused on living and on under standing experience as it came. As we know, this emphasis on experience did not mean that Sixties people shared a single viewpoint. There were serious splits among political and cultural activists. Alinsky’s own pragmatism caused him to express great disdain for the Dionysian aspects of the Sixties. He made his organizers wear ties. He kept enormous distance from the politically flamboyant aspects of the flower child movement. He was widely known as a drinker and thought of drugs as counter-culture in a ridiculous way. Alinsky was very patriotic, very pro-culture, and never really did oppose the Vietnam War. He stuck to local and domestic issues like glue and had nothing but derision for those who did not.
Any Sixties person can see some of these tendencies in Hillary. Back then she would have been considered very serious, a “straight arrow.” Alinsky would have excited these serious tendencies with his own equally serious attention to matters of strategy and tactics, and by his own serious streak, which was a red hot concern for the poor. “Poverty is an embarrassment to the American soul,” he said over and over again. That was probably his only religious statement and it was enough to make him serious allies with the church in Chicago and beyond. Alinsky would not have appealed to the Methodism in Hillary’s personality. He was much too profane, cursing a blue streak, smoking non-stop, and insulting many people who were as earnest as she was. Still, their fundamental antipathy to poverty would connect them, and finally cause him to be the topic she chose for her senior thesis.
Hillary Clinton and Alinsky disagreed over the issue of localism. She did not believe the local was a large enough context for political action. For a suburban girl who already had a national candidate (Goldwater), that viewpoint was not surprising. For the poor that Alinsky loved, even a few blocks was too much. There were aspects of her middle class up bring that shaped her under standing of Slinky and his ideas.
According to Allan Schuster, professor of Political Science at Wellesley , she chose her senior thesis topic because she had met Alinsky in high school and had heard him speak at a meeting she had attended in Boston . That meeting resulted in her organizing a demonstration in the town of Wellesley — something slinky himself would have done. He thought campus issues, which Hillary had been working on for some time, were silly. They were about the middle class, not about the poor. Hillary responded to this guidance positively. But eventually she found the town of Wellesley and the city of Boston too ”small” to matter to the poor as sites for change.
Clifford Green, then professor of biblical history at Wellesley College and now a professor at Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut , taught the bible course she was required to take in her sophomore year. His classes confirmed for Hillary the religious view point inaugurated by Jones — that faith had to do with life, not just with personal matters. Green remembers the surprise of the Wellesley girls that religion could be so public in its real meaning.
Weighing the two major influences on Hillary — religion and community organizing — her biographer Donnie Radcliff has it about right: religion probably meant more to Hillary than organizing. It was public religion that integrated the Sixties context and Alinsky’s focus on the poor and their suffering. The principle of public religion was also ratified by the Wellesley motto: Non ministrar sed ministrare (we are not here to be ministered to, but to minister unto). Taught early by Don Jones, sustained by Benziger, excited by King, challenged by Alinsky, Hillary Clinton was nursed by the Sixties city and the Sixties college to become a political activist with enduring power.
Schecter says that Alinsky recognized her talents as an organizer during the Wellesley period and offered her a significant position after college. He didn’t offer these jobs to many women, nor did he offer them without a serious, often disturbing assessment of the person’s abilities. Caesar Chavez is a well-known example of an Alinsky disciple, chosen and hewn by the master. But whereas Chavez bought the localism of the Alinsky method, Hillary did not.
Schecter also confirms Donnie Radcliffe’s belief that Hillary turned Alinsky down because her senior thesis convinced her that his methods were not “large” enough. She believed, according to Schecter’s interpretation of the thesis, that Alinsky’s tactics and strategies were useful at the local level, but that even if an activist were successful in local organizing, systemic policy matters on the national level would prevent actual power from going to people. She chose to work at the macro-level of law rather than the micro-level of community because of this analysis. Many Alinsky disciples acknowledge that this is a serious and frequent argument made against him.
Hillary Clinton went to law school in order to have an influence on these larger and more difficult issues. Her motivation may have been religious in that uniquely public way that Jones taught her. She was not satisfied with the “right personal faith” and was far more serious about finding a way to put that faith into action. The University of Life approach is what has remained. This way of learning from the street was also a fundamental aspect of Alinsky’s teaching. In this way, we can see that Hillary was influenced by a powerful mixture of experience and theory. Then the credentializing began. She may not have known just how much Alinsky hated lawyers, but he hated them with a severity that makes her career choice all the more interesting.
For a young woman to turn down this extremely macho man, and to stand against him in theory as well as in practice, is astonishing, particularly given the times and her young age. Her assertion to Alinsky that confrontational tactics would upset the kind of people she grew up with in Park Ridge , thus creating a backlash, was either naive or brilliant. He surely told her what he is reported to have said — “that won’t change anything.” It couldn’t have been said with respect. She apparently countered, “Well, Mr. Alinsky, I see a different way than you.”
Perhaps this exchange explains why so many people find Hillary too assertive and aloof. She emulates Alinsky in the seriousness with which she accepts her mission — thus embodying his best teaching — and at the same time she distinguishes herself with her own point of view. As Schecter pointed out, she understood early on that poor people needed not just participation, but also structure and leadership. That she thought Alinsky could not provide that is surprising, but that is what she thought at that time. To have much more political sophistication in an 18 year- old would have been scary. Her thesis concluded that “organizing the poor for community actions to improve their own lives may have, in certain circumstances, short-term benefits for the poor but would never solve their major problems. You need much more than that. You need leadership, programs, constitutional doctrines.”
That analysis ultimately led to law school and not back to the University of Life or to Alinsky’s streets. In extensive correspondence with Rev. Jones during college, she began the shift from Goldwater conservatism to a more liberal viewpoint. “Can one be a mental conservative but a heart liberal?” she asked him at one point.
One example in a real political context shows her legal and activist mind at work. Marshall Goldman, a Wellesley professor of Russian economics, suggested that students had mixed up tactics in boycotting classes. He wanted them to skip weekends because that was sacrificial. Hillary responded quickly in The Wellesley News, “I’ll give up my date Saturday night, Mr. Goldman, but I don’t think that’s the point. Individual consciences are fine, but individual con sciences have to be made manifest.” Not only do we see her rational and argumentative mind here, but also the nearly literal interpretation of public religion that has integrated her political action and her life.
In the speech she made at her Wellesley commencement, she quoted a poem by a fellow student, Nancy Scheibner, called ”The Art of Making Possible.” Hillary Clinton and Alinsky are fellow travelers here. The pragmatism of a politician joins the fundamentalism of a certain kind of true believer: this marriage is what has taken Hillary beyond her senior thesis. She does exactly what Alinsky would have taught her to do — to read, continuously, from experience. She also stays very close to what Jones and Wellesley would have her do — to express her faith in public action. Both politics and religion keep her safely in the Sixties realm and do so in unusual, personally appropriated ways. She moves beyond her senior thesis, but continues to put much of what she learned during that period into practice today.