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The Agitator

Barack Obama’s unlikely political education.


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n 1985, Barack Obama traveled halfway across the More than 20 years later, Obama presents himself as a post-
country to take a job that he didn’t fully understand. But, partisan consensus builder, not a rabble-rouser, and certainly
while he knew little about his new vocation—community not a disciple of Alinsky, who disdained electoral politics
organizer—it still had a romantic ring, at least to his 24- and titled his organizing manifesto Rules for Radicals. On the
year-old ears. With his old classmates from Columbia, he stump, Obama makes a pitch for “common-sense, practical,
had talked frequently about political change. Now, he was mov- nonideological solutions.” And, although he’s anchored to a cen-
ing to Chicago to put that talk into action. His 1995 memoir, ter-left worldview, he gives the impression of being above the
Dreams from My Father, recounts his idealistic effusions: ideological fray—a fresh face who is a generation removed from
“Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come the polarizing turmoil of the 1960s. The mirror he holds up is
from a mobilized grass roots. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll organize invariably flattering—reflecting back a tolerant, forward-look-
black folks. At the grass roots. For change.” ing electorate ready to unite around his consensus-minded
His excitement wasn’t rooted merely in youthful enthusiasm brand of politics. Indeed, if there has been a knock
but also in the psychology of a vagabond. By 1985, Obama had on Obama’s campaign in these early days, it’s that it may be a
already lived in Hawaii, where he was born and raised by his bit too idealistic for the realities of a presidential race. With his
white mother and grandparents; Indonesia, where he lived briefly lofty rhetoric and careful positioning as above politics, Obama
as a child; Los Angeles, where he started college; and New York, in some ways recalls Bill Bradley, another candidate of moral
where he finished it. After these itinerant years, he would finally purity—and one whose unwillingness to engage in the rough-
be able to insinuate himself into a community—and not just any and-tumble of modern politics ultimately proved his undoing.
community, but, as he later put it, “the capital of the African Yet Obama connects his past as a Chicago organizer to his
American community in the country.” Every strain of black po- presidential bid with surprising ease. Last month, during his first
litical thought seemed to converge in Chicago in the 1980s. It visit to South Carolina since his campaign announcement, we
was the intellectual center of black nationalism, the base both discussed his community-organizing days. He sat at the head of
for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and for Louis Farra- a long table inside a dimly lit hotel conference room in Colum-
khan’s Nation of Islam. Moreover, on the eve of Obama’s arrival, bia and ate a chocolate energy bar. When I began to suggest links
Harold Washington had overthrown Richard J. Daley’s white between his organizing work then and his current campaign, he
ethnic machine to become the city’s first black mayor. It was, in interrupted: “I think there is. I don’t think you need to strain for
short, an ideal place for an identity-starved Kenyan Kansan to it.” He was at home talking Alinskian jargon about “agitation,”
immerse himself in a more typical black American experience. which he defined as “challenging people to scrape away habit,”
Not long after Obama arrived, he sat down for a cup of coffee and he fondly recalled organizing workshops where he learned
in Hyde Park with a fellow organizer named Mike Kruglik. the concept of “being predisposed to other people’s power.”
Obama’s work focused on helping poor blacks on Chicago’s South Publicly, as well, Obama has made his organizing days cen-
Side fight the city for things like job banks and asbestos removal. tral to his political identity. When he announced his candidacy
His teachers were schooled in a style of organizing devised by Saul for president last month, he said the “best education” he ever
Alinsky, the radical University of Chicago–trained social scientist. had was not his undergraduate years at Occidental and Colum-
At the heart of the Alinsky method is the concept of “agitation”— bia or even his time at Harvard Law School, but rather the four
making someone angry enough about the rotten state of his life years he spent in the mid-’80s learning the science of commu-
that he agrees to take action to change it; or, as Alinsky himself nity organizing in Chicago. The night after Obama’s announce-
described the job, to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” ment speech, he made a similar point on “60 Minutes” as he led
On this particular evening, Kruglik was debriefing Obama Steve Kroft around the old neighborhood.
about his work when a panhandler approached. Instead of ig- Obama’s self-conception as an organizer isn’t just a cam-
noring the man, Obama confronted him. “Now, young man, is paign gimmick. Organizing remained central to Obama long
that really what you want be about?” Obama demanded. “I after his stint on the South Side. In the 13 years between
mean, come on, don’t you want to be better than that? Let’s Obama’s return to Chicago from law school and his Senate
get yourself together.” campaign, he was deeply involved with the city’s constellation
Kruglik remembers this episode as an example of why, in ten of community-organizing groups. He wrote about the subject.
years of training organizers, Obama was the best student he He attended organizing seminars. He served on the boards of
ever had. He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, foundations that support community organizing. He taught
who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Alinsky’s concepts and methods in workshops. When he first
Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not liv- ran for office in 1996, he pledged to bring the spirit of com-
ing up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could munity organizing to his job in the state Senate. And, after
be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes he was elected to the U.S. Senate, his wife, Michelle, told a
personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in reporter, “Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s
their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make
a carrot of hope that they could make things better. change.” Recalling her remark in 2005, Obama wrote, “I take

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M a r c h 1 9 , 2 0 0 7 The New R epubl ic Bro ok s K r a f t
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that observation as a compliment.” were the folks I was really inspired by— afterward. He was profane, outspoken,
By defining himself as a “community the John Lewises, the Bob Moseses, the and narcissistic, always the center of at-
organizer” above all else, Obama is link- Fannie Lou Hamers, the Ella Bakers.” tention despite his tweedy, academic
ing himself to America’s radical demo- Instead, he got Gerald Kellman, a Jew- look and thick, horn-rimmed glasses.
cratic tradition and presenting himself as ish organizer in a rumpled, tea-stained Alinsky was deeply influenced by the
an heir to a particular political style and shirt. While Obama was in search of an great social science insight of his times,
methodology that, at least superficially, authentic African American experience, one developed by his professors at Chi-
contrasts sharply with the candidate Kellman was simply in search of an au- cago: that the pathologies of the urban
Obama has become. Community orga- thentic African American. His organiza- poor were not hereditary but environ-
nizers see themselves as disciples of tion worked in black neighborhoods mental. This idea, that people could
Thomas Paine and the colonists who decimated by the shuttering of economic change their lives by changing their sur-
dumped tea in Boston Harbor. Histori- behemoths like U.S. Steel, agitating the roundings, led him to take an obscure so-
cally, they have revered the tactics of the unemployed to demand jobs and safer cial science phrase—“the community
labor militants of the 1930s, and they be- streets. But, for all the anger and poverty organization”—and turn it into, in the
came famous in the ’60s for the political in these places, Kellman and his com- words of Alinsky biographer Sanford Hor-
theater championed by Alinsky, illus- rades couldn’t break through. Because he witt, “something controversial, important,
trated most memorably by his threat of a and his fellow organizers, Mike Kruglik even romantic.” His starting point was an
“fart-in” at a Rochester, New York, opera and Gregory Galluzzo, were white (and early fascination with John L. Lewis, the
house to bring attention to the Kodak two of the three were Jewish), the black great labor leader and founder of the CIO.
company’s refusal to hire blacks. pastors viewed them with suspicion and, What if, Alinsky wondered, the same
Needless to say, this doesn’t sound in some cases, outright disdain. Kellman, hardheaded tactics used by unions could
much like the placid politician who wrote who had paid what he considered a small be applied to the relationship between cit-
The Audacity of Hope. And it raises ques- fortune for the Times ad, desperately izens and public officials?
tions about Obama’s authentic political needed a young black man to give the To test his theory, Alinsky left the
identity that require traveling back to the group credibility. world of academia in the 1930s and set
years when community organizing gave The job with the DCP allowed Obama up shop in Chicago’s meatpacking neigh-
him the best education of his life. entrée into the poor black neighbor- borhood, the “Back of the Yards”—the
hoods with which he was so eager to same wretched, multiethnic enclave that

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year after graduating from Co- connect. But serving as the black rep- Upton Sinclair had chronicled three
lumbia, Obama spotted an in- resentative for a trio of white organizers decades earlier in The Jungle. He created
triguing help-wanted ad in The wasn’t exactly the community-organiz- the Back of the Yards Neighborhood
New York Times. The Calumet Commu- ing fantasy he had in mind. Rather, as Council, which won a succession of vic-
nity Religious Conference (ccrc), a Obama says today, “This was the closest tories against businesses and decreased
group that aimed to convert the black I could find.” Kellman, Kruglik, and Gal- crime, while increasing cooperation be-
churches of Chicago’s South Side into luzzo weren’t schooled in civil rights–era tween rival ethnic groups. The results
agents of social change, was looking for organizing, but in the teachings of Alin- were impressive enough that they were
a community organizer to run the group’s sky, who distrusted movement politics celebrated far beyond Chicago in news-
inner-city arm, the Developing Commu- and even Martin Luther King Jr. But, al- paper stories with headlines like, “they
nities Project (DCP). Obama soon ar- though Obama didn’t quite find him- called him a ‘red,’ but young soci-
ranged to meet in New York with the self reliving the civil rights era, he soon ologist did the job.”
organizer heading up the job search. found himself succumbing to the appeal Alinsky had been dead for more than a
Obama had spent the previous year on of Alinsky’s organizing methodology. decade when Obama arrived in Chicago,
a fruitless quest. He worked briefly for In Dreams, Obama spent some 150 but his legacy was still very much alive.
a Ralph Nader outfit in Harlem teach- pages on his four years in Chicago Kruglik, Kellman, and Galluzzo had all
ing college kids about recycling and then working as an organizer, but there’s lit- studied his teachings through the Indus-
on a losing assemblyman’s race in Brook- tle discussion of the theory that under- trial Areas Foundation (IAF), the organiz-
lyn. But he longed for an experience girded his work and informed that of ing school Alinsky founded. By the ’80s,
that connected him to the civil rights his teachers. Alinsky is the missing not even the IAF strictly adhered to every
era. “In the sit-ins, the marches, the jail- layer of his account. principle that Alinsky taught. But at least
house songs,” he wrote in Dreams, “I saw Born in 1909 to Russian-Jewish immi- one of Obama’s teachers considered him-
the African-American community be- grants, Alinsky had prowled the same self a true believer: “I regard myself as St.
coming more than just the place where neighborhoods that Obama now worked Paul who never met Jesus,” Galluzzo told
you’d been born or the house where and internalized many of the same les- me of Alinsky, who died shortly after Gal-
you’d been raised. Through organiz- sons. As a University of Chicago crimi- luzzo moved to Chicago on a pilgrimage
ing, through shared sacrifice, member- nology graduate student, he ingratiated to meet him in 1972. “I’m his best disciple.”
ship had been earned.” Obama wanted himself with Al Capone’s mobsters to Alinsky has attracted other, more famous
to join the club. learn all he could about the dynamics of admirers, including Hillary Clinton, who
Courtesy of Obama for America

“What really inspired me,” Obama told the city’s underworld, an experience that wrote an undergraduate thesis about him,
me during one of several conversations helped foster a lifelong appreciation for a favorite bit of trivia for right-wingers.
about his work as an organizer, “was the seeing the world as it actually exists, But, while Alinsky is often viewed as
civil rights movement. And if you asked rather than through the academic’s ide- an ideological figure—toward the end of
me who my role model was at that time, alized prism. Charming and self-ab- his life, New Left radicals tried to claim
it would probably be Bob Moses, the fa- sorbed, Alinsky would entertain friends him as one of their own—to place
mous sncc [Student Nonviolent Coor- with stories—some true, many embel- Alinsky within a taxonomy of left-wing
dinating Committee] organizer. ... Those lished—from his mob days for decades politics is to miss the point. His legacy is

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less ideological than methodological. interest is the only principle around written, “Power Analysis” and “Relation-
Alinsky’s contribution to community or- which to organize people. (Galluzzo’s ships Built on Self Interest,” an idea illus-
ganizing was to create a set of rules, a manual goes so far as to advise trainees trated by a diagram of the flow of money
clear-eyed and systemic approach that in block letters: “get rid of do-good- from corporations to the mayor.
ordinary citizens can use to gain public ers in your church and your orga- But, although he was a first-class stu-
power. The first and most fundamental nization.”) Obama was a fan of Alinsky’s dent of Alinsky’s method, Obama also
lesson Obama learned was to reassess his realistic streak. “The key to creating suc- saw its limits. It appealed to his head
understanding of power. Horwitt says cessful organizations was making sure but not his heart. For instance, Alinsky
that, when Alinsky would ask new stu- people’s self-interest was met,” he told relished baiting politicians or low-level
dents why they wanted to organize, they me, “and not just basing it on pie-in-the- bureaucrats into public meetings where
would invariably respond with selfless sky idealism. So there were some basic they would be humiliated. Obama found
bromides about wanting to help others. principles that remained powerful then, these “accountability sessions” unset-
Alinsky would then scream back at them and in fact I still believe in.” tling, even cruel. “Oftentimes, these
that there was a one-word answer: “You Chicago pastors still remember Obama elected officials didn’t have that much
want to organize for power!” making the rounds of local churches and more power than the people they repre-
Galluzzo shared with me the manual conducting interviews—in organizing sented,” he told me.
he uses to train new organizers, which is lingo, “one-on-ones”—where he would At one meeting, where residents of an
little different from the version he used probe for self-interest. The Reverend asbestos-laden housing project con-
to train Obama in the ’80s. It is filled with Alvin Love, the Baptist minister of a fronted their property manager about
workshops and chapter headings on un- modest brick church amid the clapboard whether their homes had been tested,
derstanding power: “power analysis,” “el- bungalows of the South Side, was one of Obama suddenly had the urge to warn
ements of a power organization,” “the Obama’s first one-on-ones. During a re- his target. “I wanted to somehow let Mr.
path to power.” Galluzzo told me that cent visit to his church, Love told me, “I Anderson know that I understood his di-
many new trainees have an aversion to remember he said this to me: ‘There lemma,” Obama wrote in Dreams, with
Alinsky’s gritty approach because they ought to be some way for us to help you the kind of empathy that is the hallmark
come to organizing as idealists rather meet your self-interest while at the same of his autobiography. He was sometimes
than realists. But Galluzzo’s manual in- time meeting the real interests and the more interested in connecting with folks
structs them to get over these hang-ups. needs of the community.’ ” on the South Side than organizing them.
“We are not virtuous by not wanting Obama so mastered the workshops on He studied the characters he encoun-
power,” it says. “We are really cowards for power that he later taught them himself. tered so closely that Kruglik says Obama
not wanting power,” because “power is On his campaign website, one can find a turned his field reports into short stories
good” and “powerlessness is evil.” photo of Obama in a classroom teaching about the hopes and struggles of the local
The other fundamental lesson Obama students Alinskian methods. He stands pastors and congregants with whom he
was taught is Alinsky’s maxim that self- in front of a blackboard on which he has was trying to commune.
Where some of Alinsky’s disciples speak
of his work with religious fervor, Obama
Obama teaches a community-organizing workshop in Chicago. maintained some detachment during
these years. In his memoir, he gently
mocked Marty Kauffman, the character
based on Kellman (and a touch of Krug-
lik), who is a little too clinical in his ap-
proach and never puts down any roots in
the community. “[I]t occurred to me that
he’d made no particular attachments to
people or place during his three years in
the area, that whatever human warmth or
connection he might require came from
elsewhere,” he wrote. Obama was deter-
mined not to end up like that. He needed
something more than organizing theory
to make the South Side his home.
As it was, he ran into the same road-
block as his trainers had. “Obama,” Gal-
luzzo told me, “was constantly being
harassed by people saying, ‘Oh, you
work for that white person.’ ” On one oc-
casion, he eagerly tried to make his
pitch about joining DCP to a Reverend
Smalls. Smalls wasn’t interested. “I think
I remember some white man coming
around talking about some developing
something or other,” he told Obama.
“Funny-looking guy. Jewish name.” His
hostility only grew when Obama ex-
plained that Catholic priests were also

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involved. “Listen . . . what’s your name ‘Behold the dreamer! You’re dreaming if Obama told me. “But Alinsky under-
again? Obamba?” Smalls asked without you think you are going to do that.’ ” stated the degree to which people’s hopes
waiting for an answer. “Listen, Obamba, From Wright and others, Obama and dreams and their ideals and their val-
you may mean well. I’m sure you do. learned that part of his problem as an or- ues were just as important in organizing
But the last thing we need is to join up ganizer was that he was trying to build a as people’s self-interest.” He continued,
with a bunch of white money and Cath- confederation of churches but wasn’t “Sometimes the tendency in community
olic churches and Jewish organizers to showing up in the pews on Sunday. When organizing of the sort done by Alinsky
solve our problems.” Obama left the pastors asked him the inevitable ques- was to downplay the power of words and
meeting crestfallen. tions about his own spiritual life, Obama of ideas when in fact ideas and words are
would duck them uncomfortably. A Rev- pretty powerful. ‘We hold these truths to

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n a Sunday morning two weeks erend Philips put the problem to him be self-evident, all men are created equal.’
before he launches his presiden- squarely when he learned that Obama Those are just words. ‘I have a dream.’
tial campaign, Obama is at Trin- didn’t attend services. “It might help your Just words. But they help move things.
ity United Church of Christ on the South mission if you had a church home,” he And I think it was partly that understand-
Side, gently swaying from side to side told Obama. “It doesn’t matter where, re- ing that probably led me to try to do
under a giant iron cross. From the outside, ally. What you’re asking from pastors re- something similar in different arenas.”
the church looks more like a fortress than quires us to set aside some of our more

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a house of worship, with high white- priestly concerns in favor of prophesy. n 1995, Oba m a shocked his old
washed brick walls topped with security That requires a good deal of faith on our friend Jean Rudd by telling her he
cameras. Inside, Trinity is the sort of Af- part. It makes us want to know just where wanted to run for the state Senate.
rican American community that the you’re getting yours from.” Back in 1985, Rudd, then working at the
young Obama longed to connect with After many lectures like this, Obama Woods Fund—a Chicago foundation that
when he first came to Chicago. The decided to take a second look at Wright’s gives grants for community organizing—
church’s motto is “unashamedly black and church. Older pastors warned him that had provided Kellman with his original
unapologetically Christian,” and sunlight Trinity was for “Buppies”—black urban $25,000 to hire Obama. When Obama
streams through stained glass windows professionals—and didn’t have enough returned to Chicago to practice law, he
depicting the life of a black Jesus. The Rev- street cred. But Wright was a former joined the board of Rudd’s foundation.
erend Doctor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Trin- Muslim and black nationalist who had Now he was going to the other side.
ity’s pastor since 1972, flies a red, black, studied at Howard and Chicago, and “That’s a switch!” she told him. Obama in-
and green flag near his altar and often Trinity’s guiding principles—what the sisted that nothing would change. “Oh
preaches in a dashiki. He has spent de- church calls the “Black Value System”— no,” he said, according to Rudd. “I’m
cades writing about the African roots of included a “Disavowal of the Pursuit of going to use the same skills as a commu-
Christianity, partly as a way to convince ‘Middleclassness.’” nity organizer.”
young blacks tempted by Islam that Chris- The crosscurrents appealed to Obama. In fact, Obama had already been
tianity is not “a white man’s religion.” He came to believe that the church could applying Alinsky’s core concepts—
On this particular Sunday, the sea of not only compensate for the limitations rigorous analysis of an opponent’s
black worshippers is dotted with a few of Alinsky-style organizing but could strengths, a hardheaded understanding
white folks up in the balcony, clutching help answer the nagging identity prob- of self-interest as a fundamental orga-
copies of The Audacity of Hope they’ve lem he had come to Chicago to solve. “It nizing principle, a knack for agitating
brought for Obama’s book-signing later. was a powerful program, this cultural people to act, and a streetwise sense of
Obama, sitting in the third row with his community,” he wrote, “one more pliant when a raw show of power is necessary—
wife and two daughters, Malia and Na- than simple nationalism, more sustain- to situations beyond the South Side. In
tasha, stands, claps, prays, and sways ing than my own brand of organizing.” 1988, Obama left Chicago for Harvard
along with the rest of the congregation. As a result, over the years, Wright be- Law, where his greatest political victory
During the sermon, he watches the came not only Obama’s pastor, but his was getting himself elected president of
preacher carefully and writes notes. mentor. The title of Obama’s recent book, the law review. He did it by convincing
When asked by Wright to say a few The Audacity of Hope, is based on a ser- a crucial swing bloc of conservatives
words, Obama grabs the microphone mon by Wright. (It’s worth noting, how- that their self-interests would be pro-
and stands. “I love you all,” he says. “It’s ever, that, while Obama’s book is a tected by electing him. He built that
good to be back home.” The 150-person coolheaded appeal for common ground trust during the same kind of long lis-
choir breaks into a chorus of “Barack, in an age of political polarization, tening sessions he had made use of in
Hallelujah! Barack, Hallelujah!” Wright’s sermon, “The Audacity to Hope,” the depressed neighborhoods of Chi-
This adulation is a far cry from how is a fiery jeremiad about persevering in a cago. “He didn’t get to be president of
Obama was received by Wright when world of nuclear arms and racial inequal- Harvard Law Review because he was
they first met in the mid-’80s, during ity.) Wright is one of the first people first in his class,” said Richard Epstein, a
Obama’s initial round of one-on-ones. Obama thanked after his Senate victory colleague of Obama’s at the University
Like Smalls, Wright was unimpressed. in 2004, and he recently name-checked of Chicago Law School, where Obama
“They were going to bring all different de- Wright in his speech to civil rights lead- later taught. “He got it because people
nominations together to have this grass- ers in Selma, Alabama. on the other side believed he would give
roots movement,” explained Wright, a The church also helped Obama de- them a fair shake.”
white-haired man with a goatee and a velop politically. It provided him with Even at Harvard, Obama kept a foot in
booming voice. “I looked at him and I new insights about getting people to act, the world of organizing. He spent eight
said, ‘Do you know what Joseph’s brother or agitating, that his organizing pals days in Los Angeles taking a national
said when they saw him coming across didn’t always understand. “It’s true that training course taught by the IAF, a sta-
the field?’ ” Obama said he didn’t. “I said, the notion of self-interest was critical,” tion of the cross for Alinsky acolytes.

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