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Reading Hillary Rodham's hidden thesis
Clinton White House asked Wellesley College to close off access
Photo illustration by Clay Frost / MSNBC.com
• A political life
From Watergate to the White House to Whitewater, politics has been Hillary Clinton’s life.
As forbidden fruit, the writings of a 21-year-old college senior, examining the tactics of radical community organizer Saul D. Alinsky, have gained mythic status among her critics — a “Rosetta Stone,” in the words of one, that would allow readers to decode the thinking of the former first lady and 2008 presidential candidate.
Despite the fervent interest in the thesis, few realize that it is no longer kept under lock and key. As MSNBC.com found, it is available to anyone who visits the archive room of the prestigious women’s college outside Boston. With Clinton’s opponents in the 2008 presidential race looking for the next “Swift Boat” attack ad, and the senator herself trying to cast off her liberal image, Clinton's 92-page thesis is certain to be read and reread by opposition researchers and reporters visiting the campus.
But can 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.
Saul Alinsky in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood in 1966. Hillary D. Rodham noted his "exceptional charm" but questioned his effectiveness.
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."
Many authors on the long shelf of unsympathetic Clinton biographies have envisioned the thesis as evidence of Marxist or socialist views held by young Hillary — or conversely as proof of her political agnosticism, a lack of any ideology besides a brutal willingness to attack opponents and accumulate power in the Alinsky style.
David Brock, in his 1996 biography, "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham," called her "Alinsky's daughter."
The late Barbara Olson, author of "Hell to Pay"
Barbara Olson, the conservative lawyer and commentator, used an Alinsky quote to open every chapter of her 1999 book, "Hell to Pay: The Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton." Olson, who died in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, had charged in her book that the thesis was locked away because Clinton "does not want the American people to know the extent to which she internalized and assimilated the beliefs and methods of Saul Alinsky."
Under Wellesley's rule, Clinton's thesis became available to researchers again when the Clintons left the White House in 2001 — available only to those who visit the Wellesley archives. But few have made the trip, and the document's allure continued to grow.
A purloined copy was offered for sale on eBay in 2001, then withdrawn when Clinton's staff cited copyright law.
Nancy Kaszerman / ZUMA Press
Peggy Noonan, co-author of "The Case Against Hillary Clinton"
Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2005, decried the continued suppression of "the Rosetta Stone of Hillary studies."
Just last month, an anonymous commentator lamented on the conservative Web site Free Republic, "She's a Marxist. Saul Alinsky's student. I sure wish we could unearth that sealed thesis of hers that she wrote at Wellesley."
No appointment is necessary for such spade work. A visitor to the Wellesley campus is buzzed in to the wood-paneled archives, but only after storing coat and briefcase in a locker outside. Pencils are allowed for note taking — no pens, which might mar the document. Readers can copy only a few pages.
The Wellesley archivist, Wilma R. Slaight, respectfully presents a photocopy of the typewritten manuscript in a black binder, cushioning it on green foam pads so as not to stress the leather.
"Democracy is still a radical idea"
The confident young student took her thesis title — “There Is Only the Fight...” — from T.S. Eliot:
"There is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again."
She began with a feminist jab at the clichés of male authors: "Although I have no ‘loving wife’ to thank for keeping the children away while I wrote, I do have many friends and teachers who have contributed to the process of thesis-writing.” She thanks particularly “Mr. Alinsky for providing a topic, sharing his time and offering me a job.”
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Hillary Diane Rodham already had covered a great deal of ideological territory when she sat down to assess Alinsky's tactics.
She grew up as a Goldwater Republican, like her father, in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. By the time she was a freshman at Wellesley, when she was elected president of the College Republicans, her concern with civil rights and the war in Vietnam put her closer to the moderate-liberal wing of the GOP led by Nelson Rockefeller. By her junior year, she had to be talked by her professor into taking an internship with Rep. Gerald R. Ford and the House Republican Caucus. In her senior year, she was campaigning for the anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy.
"I sometimes think that I didn't leave the Republican Party," she has written, "as much as it left me."
Elected president of the Wellesley student government, she worked closely with the administration to increase black enrollment, to relax rules on curfews for the Wellesley girls and to give students more freedom in choosing their courses.
Saul David Alinsky would have thought that tame stuff. The old Jewish radical was famous as a community organizer from Chicago's Back of the Yards, the home of stockyard workers made famous by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." From the late 1930s until his death in 1972, Alinsky crisscrossed the country, stirring the have-nots — poor whites and blacks — to demand power from the haves.
The hell-raiser's witty provocations were famous. One of his threatened “actions,” to unsettle the upper-crust audience at the Rochester symphony, was to have protesters buy 300 to 400 tickets, but first to gather for a big baked-bean dinner. He called the idea a "fart-in." It never happened, according to biographer Sanford D. Horwitt, though Alinsky loved to tell the story as if it had.
But Alinsky was no mere showman. He was a sometimes brutal seeker of power for others, schooling radicals with maxims such as "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it."
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