09 October 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize? Really?

Well, I’m sure nearly everyone has heard the news today regarding President Obama’s award.  I can safely say that, outside the five-member Nobel Peace Prize Committee, everyone was surprised by the announcement, the president included.

For most, this surprise isn’t along the lines of “Wow, I didn’t even know he was nominated.”  No, the collective reaction of millions of people is best expressed by paraphrasing Saturday Night Live’s Amy Pohler and Seth Meyers.  “The Nobel Peace Prize?  Really?”

Of course, partisan politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Al Gore are loudly proclaiming that the award is well-deserved.  Some might say that since both men are Nobel laureates, their opinion holds a great deal of weight.  But to counterbalance this, the 1983 Peace Prize laureate, Lech Walesa said, “So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage."

Walesa is especially accurate, looking at the nomination process and schedule.  Nominations for the Peace Prize were opened September of last year, when Obama was still on the election trail.  The nomination deadline was February 1st of this year, when Obama had been president for less than 2 weeks.  So not only is it too early to give him the prize just nine months into his presidency, it was far too early to even nominate him for the prize while he was still a candidate, or barely days after becoming president.

In Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will and bequest that established the Nobel Prizes, he stated that the requirement for the Peace Prize would be that the person “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”  Notice that little verb, “done”? 

What are some of the “dones” that have earned the Nobel Peace Prize in years past?  Brokering the peace between Russia and Japan in the first part of the last century.  Helping to end World War I and creating the League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations.  Ending apartheid in South Africa.  Working toward peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Fighting for human rights against abusive regimes.  Working to meet the needs of the poor and destitute in the slums of Calcutta.

Since Obama hasn’t “done” anything like that, why was he given the honor?  The Nobel Peace Prize Committee said it was because of Obama’s “initiative” for international diplomacy and his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms.”  They expected that “[d]emocracy and human rights are to be strengthened.”  Also, the Committee chairman said it was because Obama has “captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.”  Oh yes, and the chairman said the prize should be seen as a “kick in the leg” to the Bush administration.  So there it is.  Obama was awarded the Peace Prize because he is well-known; because he wants to work toward world peace; because the Committee hopes he will promote democracy and human rights, and because they wanted to take a parting shot at President Bush.  I’m still looking for that little word “done” in their rationale.

So I suppose that’s the new level of qualification for the Nobel Peace Prize.  You don’t have to actually do anything.  Just make some speeches about getting along with other countries, come up with a catchy campaign slogan about hope, get well-enough known, and make sure that the Peace Prize Committee hates someone more than you.

This lowering of the bar for an internationally recognized honor is truly stunning.  The Committee has debased the value of a once-prestigious award.  What’s next?  Give the Academy Award for Best Actor to Keanu Reeves because you hope he’ll someday learn to act? 

There is only one way to restore some modicum of respect to the Peace Prize.  Obama should reiterate his statement from this morning, “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize,” and then decline the prize in favor of a truly deserving person.  But we all know he won’t do that.

As a final thought, it is interesting to note that on the same day that Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was nominated to be the 2009 Robert Goulet Mustached American of the Year from the American Mustache Institute.  (No joke.)  The award is for “the best contributor to the Mustached American way of life.”

Take a look at Holder’s picture and at Obama’s international accomplishments.  Now, tell me who is actually deserving of his award.

06 October 2009

What I Admire President Obama For

I have, so far, found one thing that stirs some admiration of President Obama.

Some people would say that he should be admired for being the first African-American president.  Sorry, I can’t muster that feeling.  It’s not because I am racist or think that a black person shouldn’t hold the highest office in the land.  Contrary to that, I believe that it was inevitable for a person of color to be elected president at some point soon; it was only a matter of time, and not a matter of unique providence.  Had it not been Obama, the first black president would have been chosen not too many elections down the road, considering the growing number of well-qualified public servants who happen to be African-American.  Even now, the vast majority of people would not make their decision based on the color of the candidate’s skin; how much more would this be true in the future.  Becoming the first black president is not something that only Barack Obama was capable of doing.  So, though it was indeed an achievement, it bears only equal admiration to any person being elected President of the United States.

As a secondary thought, among those who nearly worship Obama for this accomplishment, I would ask if they would have had the same reaction if the first African-American president had been Colin Powell, or Condoleeza Rice, or even the reoccurring ultra-conservative candidate Alan Keyes.  My guess is that for most of the Obama admirers, the answer to each would be no.  They would not admire in any way a conservative black person who was elected president.  This simply shows that their admiration of President Obama is steeped in political motives and not solely because of the historical achievement.

But all this aside, there is one thing that causes me to admire both President and Mrs. Obama.  I was reading a book today on the history of the Secret Service by Ronald Kessler, In The President’s Secret Service.  This book is based on research and interviews with both retired and current Secret Service agents.

Among the chapters detailing the Secret Service’s interaction and service to each president of the 20th century, there is one which discusses President and Mrs. Obama.  In it, Kessler paints a picture of two people who are gracious to the agents on their protection details.  Mrs. Obama is very friendly and insists that the agents call her Michelle.  President Obama tries to be prompt when leaving the White House under Secret Service protection, and when he isn’t, Mrs. Obama has been known to chide him for being inconsiderate, by keeping his agents waiting.  On occasion, the Obamas have even invited agents to join them at family meals.  These anecdotes certainly give a personal face to the Obamas.  Though I don’t agree with their politics, these stories lead me to believe that I would indeed enjoy the Obamas’ company, were I ever afforded the opportunity.

Now, it should be noted that nearly every president has acted toward the Secret Service with a demeanor of respect, courtesy and appreciation.  (The sole exception seems to have been President and Mrs. Clinton who, when out of the public eye, treated with contempt the agents on their details.)  Regardless of political persuasion, each president should be admired by all for this proper conduct and attitude.

Now, some may say that it is to be expected that a president and his family should treat their guardians with respect, and that President Obama and his wife are only acting with common courtesy.  But I do think that it goes beyond that.  Though I cannot respect Obama for his policies, politics, decisions, or the character evidenced by his actions and chosen associations, I can and do respect his treatment of the Secret Service.  It is truly worthy of admiration how the Obamas show graciousness and honest appreciation to those who, if called upon by a would-be assassin, are willing to sacrifice their own lives to preserve the lives of the president and his family.