That Obama Nobel

by Jay Nordlinger

Without getting into the opinions expressed in this post, below, I’d like to address a couple of factual matters. To begin with something small: The Institute for International Law was indeed the first organization to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That was in 1904, and it was the fourth peace prize given. (The award, like the other Nobels, began in 1901.) (The econ “Nobel” began in 1969, but that is not a real Nobel, as I’ve discussed before and will pass over for now.)

People on our side — i.e., the conservative side of politics — like to say that President Obama won the prize after less than two weeks in office. Or that he won the prize because of eleven or twelve days’ work. They say this because nominations are due by February 1. That’s true. It is also true that Obama was sworn in on January 20 in the year of his Nobel prize (2009).

But the prize is not announced until the second Friday in October (traditionally). And committee members themselves can make nominations at their first meeting, which is in late February or early March. At any rate, they have eight and a half months, after February 1, to deliberate. Obama was awarded the prize on the basis of nine months’ performance. (That’s a full three trimesters, in Supreme Court language.)

Alfred Nobel’s prizes — all five of them, even the literature prize — are supposed to go for work done during the preceding year. (That is, during the year preceding the date on which a prize is given. The Nobel prizes are conferred on December 10, the date of Nobel’s death.) The various committees, of course, have long failed to honor this term of Nobel’s will. There are all sorts of excuses, a few of them even good.

In 2008, the peace committee gave its prize to Martii Ahtisaari, the Finnish diplomat. They said that they were giving it to him for his efforts “on several continents and over more than three decades.” This was, in short, a lifetime-achievement award. But what about Nobel’s will? The committee chairman said, “It is not easy to take every sentence in Nobel’s will absolutely literally.”

The next year, when Obama won the prize, people said, “What the . . .? He’s been in office for well less than a year!” Responding to this, the chairman — different man, same post — said, “The committee always takes Alfred Nobel’s will as its frame of reference.” That was a stretcher, I assure you. “The question was actually quite simple. Who has done most for peace in the past year? If the question is put in Nobel’s terms, the answer is relatively easy to find: It had to be U.S. president Barack Obama.”

Yeah, right. Anyway, we see the flexibility of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Politicians, you know.

My main point: Let’s attack the Nobel to Obama all we want, and with gusto. (I have a fairly lengthy dissection of the 2009 decision in my history of the prize.) But let’s try to retire the notion that Obama won the prize after, or because of, a couple weeks’ work.

These things can be very hard to dislodge, though, once they’ve entered our political culture. John Ashcroft never ordered the covering up of a breast on a Greek statue in the Justice Department. And Sarah Palin never said, “I can see Russia from my house.”

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