Joke’s on us

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The morning it was announced that President Obama had won the Nobel Prize for Peace, I thought it was a joke. When I saw it on the internet I thought I’d stumbled onto The Onion’s site. Everyone I mentioned it to thought it was a joke. And it is a joke.

A few years ago I heard Walter Williams, the economist, make a joke like that. The difference is that Walter Williams is a lot more intelligent than the Nobel Prize committee. He knows when he’s making a joke. He was talking about how busy he was those days, visiting his mailbox, looking for his check. He’d discovered that the government sent money to farmers because they were not raising pigs. So he started watching his mail, waiting for his own money to come. “After all,” he said, with his inimitable down-home drawl, “I’m not raisin’ pigs, either.”

And that’s how I feel about President Obama’s prize. I don’t see why I didn’t get a prize, too. After all, I’ve done as little for peace as he has.

It’s certain, of course, that he should have refused the thing. If I got a prize for, say, carpet weaving or belly dancing, I would turn it down. It would be too embarrassing to show up at the belly dancers’ convention and say how grateful I was – for what? For the stupidity of the prize committee?

But presidents aren’t that way. At least they haven’t been that way for quite some time. Bill Bradford used to say that he still believed in the old idea of the job seeking the man, instead of the man seeking the job. He was old-fashioned enough to think that there was something unseemly about people running around yelling, “I want to be president.” If a lot of people wanted you to be president, then maybe it would be polite for you to think about running – but not until then.

He divided presidents and presidential candidates into two categories. You could call them psychological categories. In one category were people who many other people actually liked. Politically, it was a varied list: Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Robert LaFollette, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater; and, among winning candidates, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan. The other list was composed of people who were virtually nobody’s first choice for president, outside of their own. Some of the winners in this group were Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and the other George Bush. I think you see a pattern: lately, the List B’s have been greatly in evidence.

Of course, you need to think for a while before deciding which list some people should be on. The two Roosevelts started off on List B. They were pushy people whom few others really liked. Then, in the White House, they capitalized on the opportunities that the presidency affords for ingratiating oneself with the electorate, and they soon landed themselves on the A list. John Kennedy spent much of his political career as a denizen of B; the only people who really wanted him to be president were his family, their paid assistants, other fanatical Irish Catholics, and (sometimes) himself. While running for president against the archetypically list-B Nixon, however, he became, by contrast, an exemplary resident of List A, beloved of crowds.

What of Obama? Did I say that Nixon was the king of the list B folk? He was – but make way for Obama. Nobody wanted Obama to be president – nobody except Obama, who probably wanted it from about the age of six. Yes, many people wanted an African-American president. Many people wanted a left-liberal president. Many people wanted anyone but Bush as president. But nobody really wanted Obama, except Oprah Winfrey. And why should they want him, just him? He had no political accomplishments, no special political ideas, no special political insight, no special political significance. He was intelligent, but so was Nixon. And like Nixon – like Bush, like the miserable Carter, like even the much more interesting Kennedy – he had something inside him that needed to call itself president.

Now, how do you think a person like that will react to an award, any award? Hell grab it, of course.

It’s said that John Kennedy – who had a moderate and equable temperament, not at all given to tantrums – angrily refused to tolerate disagreement on one point: his authorship of “Profiles in Courage,” a book that he did not write, but for which he collected the Pulitzer Prize.

In the same vein, imagine trying to persuade the emotionally needy Barack Obama that the Nobel Prize was misplaced, that he clearly had done nothing to earn it, that he could derive enormous political benefits by modestly declining it … All those statements are beyond obvious. But imagine him agreeing with that logic. No, never in a million years! That award is his. He wants it. He needs it. He would never be able to see it as something like a prize for not raising pigs.

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