Only in America. Correct that: Only in the polarized America of 2009. President Obama had just been named the 2009 recipient of one of world’s highest honors, the Nobel Peace Prize. He is only the third sitting U.S. president to receive that honor, after Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. (Jimmy Carter received the award for his post-presidency peace-making efforts.)
You would think the first reaction of Americans who are proud of their country would be - well - pride. And that everyone would take a timeout from partisanship, even briefly, to express such pride.
But in today’s America, that is not to be.
The strident Republican right filled with Obama-haters shamed themselves - and embarrassed fair-thinking conservatives - with churlish and venomous attacks on the Nobel Prize committee and Mr. Obama. The hypocrisy and irony were apparent. The same conservative partisans who cheered when Chicago lost its bid for the Olympics now booed when a U.S. president won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh, who gleefully announced the Chicago loss, led the race to the bottom. He said about Mr. Obama’s award: “This fully exposes the illusion that is Barack Obama. It is a greater embarrassment than losing the Olympics bid.”
Yet for some reason, the Democratic National Committee couldn’t keep quiet, violating the cardinal political rule that when the other side is embarrassing themselves, get out of the way and be quiet. In a comment that compared in its excessive tastelessness to Mr. Limbaugh’s, a DNC spokesman stated: “The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists - the Taliban and Hamas - this morning in criticizing the president for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Not surprisingly, it was Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Mr. Obama’s opponent for the presidency in 2008, who made the most appropriate and classy Republican response: “I congratulate President Obama on receiving this prestigious award. I join my fellow Americans in expressing pride in our president on this occasion.”
It is possible to congratulate our president and feel pride for our country and still express surprise that Mr. Obama received the award just eight months into his term. The president himself said he was “very surprised” and “deeply humbled,” adding, “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformational figures who have been honored by this prize.”
However, the shock of the committee’s decision was exacerbated by a general misunderstanding that the award had been presented in the past only to those with demonstrated achievements. In fact, there are many examples of awards for those who had made earnest efforts for peace, even if they had not yet been successful.
For example, in October 1973, the awardees were Henry A. Kissinger, President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of state, and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho for their negotiations to try to reach a final peace agreement in Vietnam, even though no peace had yet been achieved. (Mr. Le rejected accepting the award for that reason; Mr. Kissinger did not.)
Another, more recent, example: In October 1994, the award was shared by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat because they were engaged in peace talks and, thus, had “made substantial contributions to a historic process through which peace and cooperation can replace war and hate.” Yet at the time of the award, no peace agreement was reached - and still has not, to this day.
Perhaps the drama of Mr. Obama’s dramatic initiatives from the earliest days of his presidency, which represented a tectonic shift in America’s approach to the rest of the world, is the ultimate reason why the Nobel committee decided take the risk of awarding Mr. Obama this honor just eight months into his presidency. To use Mr. Obama’s insightful expression, perhaps the committee wanted to “encourage momentum” for the president’s early fundamental foreign-policy changes.
After all, in the first few days of his presidency, Mr. Obama sent an unprecedented personal letter to Iran’s supreme leader and, eight months later, is engaging in the first direct discussions with Iran since the hostage crisis more than 30 years ago. Then there was his Cairo speech, challenging the perception of many in the Muslim world that America is anti-Islam and cannot fairly mediate a peaceful solution between Israel and the Palestinians. He did so even at the risk of distressing many American Jewish community supporters who still believe that the Israeli perspective in the speech was overly downplayed.
Across a variety of other issues - from climate change to nuclear disarmament to dismantling anti-missile defenses on Russia’s borders to improving relations with China, even if it required a controversial delay in meeting with the Dalai Lama when he came to Washington - Mr. Obama, with the support and political weight of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has given clear signals that major “change” is the hallmark of his foreign policy.
Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, referring to President Obama’s selection, explained that the award this year was about aspirations and encouragement of these new policies and attitudes towards the rest of the world, not about past achievements.
Mr. Jagland said his five-member committee, ranging across Norway’s spectrum from conservative oil company board member Kaci Kullmann Five to Agot Valle of the Socialist Left Party, looked at the decision by asking a simple question: “The question we have to ask is, ‘Who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world?’
In its formal statement, the panel answered: “only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better world.”
Putting partisan politics aside, the committee’s award represents a great challenge for Mr. Obama, who must now try to live up to even greater expectations to deliver real achievements now that he has received the Peace Prize.
I don’t know whether he will succeed. I do know he will do his best and that all Americans, including Republicans who follow the bipartisan statesmanship of Mr. McCain, will want him to.
In such a dangerous world, isn’t it time for everyone to apply once again the historic American tradition that politics should end at the water’s edge?
• Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.” This piece is also published at http:// pundits.thehill.com/author/lanny-davis.