Mark Lennihan/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, shown at a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative Monday in New York.

Do Hillary Clinton's 'radical letters' actually reveal her inner pragmatist?

A correspondence between Hillary Clinton and the activist Saul Alinsky sheds light on bits of personal history GOP strategists may focus on in a potential 2016 presidential run. But his biographer says Alinsky was 'relentlessly non-ideological.'

With the 2016 presidential election just two years away, and presumptive candidates locked in a continuous will-they, won't-they dance with the media, campaign fodder is slowly beginning to trickle out.

For Hillary Clinton, that means returning to a perennial favorite, particularly with right-wing media: her college thesis on left-wing activist Saul Alinsky and her 1971 stint as a law clerk for the radical law firm Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, based in Oakland, Calif. 

A correspondence between the former Secretary of State, when she was still Hillary Rodham, and Mr. Alinsky, obtained by the conservative-leaning Washington Free Beacon, sheds further light on her politics at the time.

Though the letters, of course, are not new; they come from the archives of the Industrial Areas Foundation. They show a young Hillary Rodham, living in Berkeley for the summer during her time as a student at Yale Law School, communicating with the famed activist in a casual, friendly manner. She asks about his forthcoming book, "Rules for Radicals." She suggests they should meet the next time he's in California. She closes the letter by writing, "I hope you are still well and fighting ... Hopefully we can have a good argument sometime in the future." 

Alinsky, active in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, worked mainly to improve the lives of the poor in communities across the US.

While he has become associated with radical left-wing politics in current political thought, it's an association that's largely misplaced, says Mark Santow, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and the author of a forthcoming book on Alinsky.

Professor Santow says Alinsky's philosophy did not have a political persuasion. Rather, he was "relentlessly non-ideological." In fact, Santow says parts of Alinsky's thinking could be found in elements of today's Democrat and Republican Parties. 

"He basically believed that American society was increasingly dominated by large institutions, governments, corporations," he says. "He thought that ordinary Americans had lost citizenship."

He adds: "He bears some resemblance to libertarians like William Buckley ... but he also bears resemblance to green, new left politics on the other side as well."  

Since leaving law school, Clinton, who was raised a Goldwater Republican and interned with Rep. Gerald R. Ford during college before switching to the Democratic Party, has led a political life characterized mainly by pragmatism. Unlike Alinsky, she elected not to go into community organizing, believing change was best achieved from within the political system, not outside of it, Santow notes.

But her senior thesis while at Wellesley examining Alinsky's philosophy has been called by some conservative critics a "Rosetta Stone" to understanding Clinton's political thinking.

Such political toxicity has likely factored into her downplaying parts of her early years. For example, her thesis was locked away from outside eyes at the request of the Bill Clinton administration while her husband was in office, though it has since been made available to anyone who visits Wellesley's archive room.

And Clinton's "radical" past is well-trodden territory. Many of the talking points center on her work at Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein. One of the firm's partners was reportedly a member of the Communist Party and another had had a past affiliation. The firm took on cases deemed controversial – defending Communists, draft resisters, and Black Panthers, the African-American militant group, according to a 2007 article in the New York Sun, published prior to Clinton's previous failed presidential run. 

As that article noted, this part of Clinton's career stands out as an anomaly when compared with the rest of her carefully crafted political image.

 "To the former first lady's enemies and political opponents, her summer at the Treuhaft firm is yet another indication that radical ideology lurks beneath the patina of moderation she has adopted in public life." 

But those who know Clinton say her worldview now is quite different from what it was at the age of 23. 

"The notion that a 21-year-old idealist somehow remains a 21-year-old idealist their whole life – she's not a radical at all. I think she's very mainstream. She's a pragmatist. She's a much more thoughtful, cautions, careful, pragmatic person," Alan Schechter, Clinton's college thesis adviser, told NBC in 2007

It will have to wait for election season to shift into full swing to know for sure what the talking heads and the editorials will focus on. Though if history holds its course, there will likely be a bit more discussion about a student who, during both college and law school, maintained an interest in community organizing and the man who helped popularize that tactic. 

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