By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
My love of lo these many years came into the room and asked what I was working on. I detailed some topics, enthralled as usual by my brilliance, but she scoffed at them all. She said that if she were writing a column, she would say something about how the Nobel Peace Prize committee got matters a bit wrong. Instead of citing Barack Obama for things intended, it should have cited the American people for things done. After all, we elected him.
This statement of indisputable but hardly obvious fact struck me as profound and also a bit troubling. In the days after the Norwegian committee made its astounding award, it became common to say the anti-Bush had been chosen. Indeed, in announcing the Nobel, the committee kept ostentatiously not mentioning George W. Bush by name but praising Obama for not being him: "Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position . . . dialogue and negotiations are preferred . . . thanks to Obama's initiative, the U.S.A. is now playing a more constructive role." You get the point.
It was as if there had been a coup. The United States of America had been taken over by this Obama person, a truly wonderful fellow, and had displaced this Bush person, quintessentially American in speech and outlook, who insisted on going it alone and had brought the world into wars it did not need. No mention was made of an election and the decision of the American people to choose this Obama -- and to choose him despite his being quite frank about how he would lead the country both domestically and in international relations. If intentions matter, then it was our intention to give Obama a chance at his.
The European view that Obama is some sort of accidental president, that he does not truly represent the essence of America, is a bit disturbing as well as insulting. I think a bit of it is a greater fixation on Obama's race than you will find here and, concurrently, a misguided belief that Obama's race makes him less of an American in America than a white person would be. Europeans have always had a good time with American racism, finding it very comforting in its confirmation of our essential boorishness. In this sense, the Nobel was meant to encourage us in our new, admirable path -- keep it up, Yanks. Thanks, Olaf.
To a degree, Obama has contributed to this perception. For a while, he went on an apology bender, expressing regret for U.S. unilateralism -- "We have at times been disengaged and at times sought to dictate our terms" -- as well as for being "too easily distracted" and for America's "failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world." (Après the Congress of Vienna, evidence for the latter is lacking.) He also took responsibility for the American contribution to the worldwide economic crisis -- "even if I wasn't president at the time" -- implying that it wouldn't have happened on his watch.
In my estimation, the distance Obama put between himself and what came before him encouraged the International Olympic Committee not to see him as the president of the United States and thus, as with some supplicating mayor, to dismiss his entreaty. At that moment, he was the president of Chicago, commander in chief of Cook County and not the entire United States. A lesson learned, I hope.
As a black man in a white America, as a half-white man in a black world, Obama has always been an anomaly -- simultaneously on and off the bus. It is one of his strengths because he has the eye and the ear of the outsider -- the quality that, in one respect, has made ethnic minorities of all types such acute observers of the culture. They have the distance to see absurdities -- such as peach-colored Crayolas labeled "flesh" or, a lesson for Justice Scalia, the notion that a cross is the most common and therefore an unobjectionable burial marker. (Not, dear Antonin, in my family.) Now, though, Obama is the very personification of his country, and distance and aloofness will no longer do.
Since the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901, many organizations have won, including various U.N. agencies. It's not only individuals that can be cited. In this case, the mass of people who broke the presidential race barrier, who knew what they were getting and what he intended, ought to be cited. On behalf of the American people, and as expressed in a blog post by Harold Meyerson, I accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
We are proudly sending Barack Obama to collect it.