March 3, 2007

WHAT WAS SHE SO AFRAID OF?:

Reading Hillary Rodham's hidden thesis: Clinton White House asked Wellesley College to close off access (Bill Dedman, 3/02/07, MSNBC)

[C]an an academic paper from nearly 40 years ago really unlock the politics and character of any former student, much less the early Democratic front-runner for the White House?

This is your chance to decide before the political spin machines get their hands on it.

Before reading Hillary Rodham's assessment of the old radical from Chicago -- Alinsky's "compelling personality," "his exceptional charm," and the limitations of his "anachronistic" tactics -- it's important to understand how the document was sealed and how it has been portrayed.

Just as conservative authors have speculated, it was the Clintons who asked Wellesley in 1993 to hide Hillary Rodham's senior thesis from the first generation of Clinton biographers, according to her thesis adviser and friend, professor Alan H. Schechter, who describes taking the call from the White House. [See sidebar: "A stupid political decision."]

Wellesley's president, Nannerl Overholser Keohane, approved a broad rule with a specific application: The senior thesis of every Wellesley alumna is available in the college archives for anyone to read -- except for those written by either a "president or first lady of the United States." So far, that action has sealed precisely one document: Hillary Rodham's senior honors thesis in political science, entitled " 'There Is Only the Fight...': An Analysis of the Alinsky Model." [...]

Rodham opened the thesis by casting Alinsky as he cast himself, in a "peculiarly American" tradition of democrats, from Thomas Paine through Martin Luther King. "Democracy is still a radical idea," she wrote, "in a world where we often confuse images with realities, words with actions."

And yet, she continued, "Much of what Alinsky professes does not sound 'radical.' His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is that Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structures of our lives in order to realize them."

Although some Clinton biographers have been quick to label Alinsky a communist, he maintained that he never joined the Communist Party. "I've never joined any organization -- not even the ones I've organized myself," he said in a 1972 interview with Playboy magazine. He said he was happy to work with anyone -- the Roman Catholic Church, black Protestants, the communists -- whoever would invite him into a neighborhood.

Looking back at the 1930s, he said, "Anybody who tells you he was active in progressive causes in those days and never worked with the Reds is a goddamn liar. Their platform stood for all the right things, and unlike many liberals, they were willing to put their bodies on the line."

Rodham's thesis describes trying to pin him down on his personal philosophy: "Alinsky, cringing at the use of labels, ruefully admitted that he might be called an existentialist," she wrote. Rodham tried to ask him about his moral relativism -- particular ends, he said, often do justify the means -- but Alinsky would only concede that "idealism can parallel self-interest."

In her paper, she accepted Alinsky's view that the problem of the poor isn't so much a lack of money as a lack of power, as well as his view of federal anti-poverty programs as ineffective. (To Alinsky, the War on Poverty was a "prize piece of political pornography," even though some of its funds flowed through his organizations.) "A cycle of dependency has been created," she wrote, "which ensnares its victims into resignation and apathy."

In formal academic language, Rodham offered a "perspective" or muted critique on Alinsky's methods, sometimes leaving unclear whether she was quoting his critics or stating her own opinion. She cited scholars who claimed that Alinsky's small gains actually delayed attainment of bigger goals for the poor and minorities.

In criticizing the "few material gains" that Alinsky engineered -- such as pressing Kodak Co. to hire blacks in Rochester, or delaying the University of Chicago's expansion into the Woodlawn neighborhood -- Rodham placed part of the blame on demography, the diminishing role of neighborhoods in American life. Another part she laid charitably to an Alinsky character trait: "One of the primary problems of the Alinsky model is that the removal of Alinsky dramatically alters its composition," she wrote. "Alinsky is a born organizer who is not easily duplicated, but, in addition to his skill, he is a man of exceptional charm."

In the end, she judged that Alinsky's "power/conflict model is rendered inapplicable by existing social conflicts" -- overriding national issues such as racial tension and segregation. Alinsky had no success in forming an effective national movement, she said, referring dismissively to "the anachronistic nature of small autonomous conflict."

Putting Alinsky's Rochester symphony threat into academic language, Rodham found that the conflict approach to power is limited. "Alinsky's conclusion that the 'ventilation' of hostilities is healthy in certain situations is valid, but across-the-board 'social catharsis' cannot be prescribed," she wrote.

She noted, however, that he was trying to broaden his reach: In 1969, Alinsky was developing an institute in Chicago at his Industrial Arts Foundation, aimed at training organizers to galvanize a surprising target: the middle class. That was the job he offered to Hillary Rodham.

Though some student activists of the 1960s may have idolized Alinsky, he didn't particularly idolize them. At the time Hillary Rodham brought him to Wellesley in January 1969 to speak at a private dinner for a dozen students, he was expressing dissatisfaction with New Left protesters such as the Students for a Democratic Society. One of his criticisms, surprisingly, was their tactical mistake of rejecting middle-class values.

Rodham closed her thesis by emphasizing that she reserved a place for Alinsky in the pantheon of social action -- seated next to Martin Luther King, the poet-humanist Walt Whitman, and Eugene Debs, the labor leader now best remembered as the five-time Socialist Party candidate for president.

"In spite of his being featured in the Sunday New York Times," she wrote of Alinsky, "and living a comfortable, expenses-paid life, he considers himself a revolutionary. In a very important way he is. If the ideals Alinsky espouses were actualized, the result would be social revolution. Ironically, this is not a disjunctive projection if considered in the tradition of Western democratic theory. In the first chapter it was pointed out that Alinsky is regarded by many as the proponent of a dangerous socio/political philosophy. As such, he has been feared -- just as Eugene Debs or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths -- democracy."


Of course, if the ideas such folks espoused were ever about to be actualized they'd fight them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 3, 2007 10:56 AM
Comments

Hillary was just nervous because someone smarter might read her thesis and comment on it. It wasn't a political decision, it was personal.

Posted by: ratbert at March 3, 2007 10:25 PM
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