Newt Gingrich and the new Willie Horton

I listened to “Meet the Press” on the radio this morning and Newt Gingrich was the first guest, basking in the glow of his win in the South Carolina primary last night. In the interview, he tipped his hand as to what his electoral strategy for the fall election will be, should he get the Republican nomination for president.

Right now, Newt Gingrich is running as the “outsider” as he tries to defeat Mitt Romney, who he has branded as the “establishment” candidate. Should he be successful in this, he will switch course for the fall election, painting himself as the “insider” in the tradition of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s name came up again and again in the interview with David Gregory. Gingrich went so far as to call himelf a “populist in the Reagan tradition.” See? Tradition! Lawrence Welk on the TV, and all of that. Those were the days!

But in the fall he will try to paint Barack Obama, the duly elected president of this country, as the “outsider.” I’ll get to why in a second, but for now it appears that  “outsider” is the label Newt Gingrich is attaching to himself, and he’ll switch to being the “insider” just as soon as he accepts his party’s nomination.

Remember how “Willie Horton” became Michael Dukakis’ downfall in 1988? If you’re in your 20s or 30s you may not remember, but if you’re early 40s and older you remember it well.

Willie Horton was serving a life sentence in prison when he was furloughed in 1986 by Governor Michael Dukakis. He didn’t return from his weekend furlough, and in the Spring of 1987 he raped and killed a woman. A tragic loss for the woman and her family, but a golden opportunity for George H.W. Bush, the incumbent vice president and Dukakis’ opponent. All Bush and those around him had to do was tell the story, without any names involved, and it would have been bad enough for Dukakis. But Bush and his people took it to a more repulsive level than that.

In all my life, I’ve never actually met any white people named “Willie.” Whenever I meet someone with that name, they usually go by “William” or “Bill.” There’s Willie Nelson, of course, and perhaps some other people that I can’t think of right now. So it’s possible that a person named “Willie” could be a white man. But the Bush campaign showed Willie Horton’s face and –surprise!–he is an African American man. An African American man with big bushy sideburns, no less.  A character right out of the blaxploitation movies of old, except that he was all too real. Bush got the reaction he wanted, and overcame a large deficit in the polls to defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.

If Willie Horton’s name had been something like “Harry Potter,” this tactic may or may not have worked on the same level. But the combination of the man’s name, the crime he committed, and the picture that was shown to White America on the TV screen was simply too much for Dukakis to overcome. Any sense of racial “progress” in this country was no match for centuries of racial fear, going all the way back to America’s earliest days.

It’s now 24 years later, and another presidential election is drawing near. Gingrich knows that he can’t go to the Willie Horton well again, especially not with an African American sitting in the White House. So he’s going to try a different tack. Enter Saul Alinsky. The strategy that Gingrich is ready to employ, as soon as he gets the chance, is to turn Saul Alinsky into the Willie Horton of the 21st century.

Nobody really knows who Saul Alinsky is, and that’s important for this strategy to work. It’s the inverse of the Ronald Reagan strategy: take an unknown quantity, define him on your own terms, and then equate him with Barack Obama. And isn’t it better to tied to the president everyone knows, instead of some person that you’ve never heard of before?

And just as “Willie Horton” was useful for conjuring up age-old racial stereotypes, the name “Saul Alinsky” has similar evocative qualities. If you had to guess what “Saul Alinsky” was, would you say he sounds Jewish? I sure would and–surprise!–I would be correct.

Tying Barack Obama to a Jewish-sounding figure is the jumping-off point for describing Obama’s “otherness.” I’ll tell you right now that everything you’ll hear about Saul Alinsky will be negative. Gingrich won’t literally put horns on Alinsky, but that will be his intent, metaphorically speaking. And whether voters actually listen to this narrative or not, it really doesn’t matter. The Jewishness of the name itself is enough to do Gingrich’s bidding.

Ask yourself, if Saul Alinsky’s name was Brian Smith, would Newt Gingrich be so eager to tie President Obama to him? I’m going to say no. Whatever the forces were that led Alisa Rosenbaum to change her name to Ayn Rand are the same ones at work in bringing the name of Saul Alinsky into this year’s presidential election.

They haven’t had to do this so far, but Gingrich and his supporters would certainly deny that there’s any anti-semitism at all involved with projecting Barack Obama onto the canvas that is Saul Alinsky.  Nevertheless, I’m throwing the possibility out there on my humble little blog, in the hope that the issues surrounding the impending Alinsky-Obama linkage are fully considered.

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