Obama's Nobel remarks: four very skillful paragraphs

More

Six months ago I mentioned that it would be hard to improve on Barack Obama's impromptu press conference answer as to whether he believed in such a thing as "American exceptionalism." I think the same is true of his remarks this morning about the Nobel Peace Prize. Each of the first four paragraphs was surprisingly artful, given the obviously short notice on which he spoke:



Let's take them one by one:

"THE PRESIDENT:  Good morning.  Well, this is not how I expected to wake up this morning.  After I received the news, Malia walked in and said, "Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo's birthday!"  And then Sasha added, "Plus, we have a three-day weekend coming up."  So it's good to have kids to keep things in perspective."

No one is going to sound truly modest in these circumstances -- you've just won the Nobel Peace Prize -- but the obligatory opening bout of self-deprecatory humor can sound more or less forced. This is about as natural-sounding and effective as it can be, meanwhile offering a glimpse of both vitality/youth and as much normality as can intrude into an American president's existence.

"I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee.  Let me be clear:  I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations."

Surprised, yes; humbled, something that is necessary to say. But very effective to turn at once to the idea that this is not his reward and recognition but that of the country as a whole. It won't keep his detractors from talking about his narcissism and vainglory, but nothing would; it is what his supporters would want to hear, and probably what the prize committee had in mind. He has probably figured out to say at every turn that this is an award not for him but for America and its ideals. And he can leave unsaid the reality that, from the prize committee's perspective, it's an award for returning to those ideals after an unpleasant hiatus.

"To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize -- men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace."

Again a compulsory note of modesty, which sets him up for the crucial following paragraph:

"But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build -- a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents.  And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.  And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action -- a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."

This was the most important and shrewdest thing he said, because it is where he acknowledges an uncomfortable fact that everyone knows to be true. Of course the award can't be in recognition of projects he has already achieved and completed, because there aren't that many of them. In these third and fourth paragraphs, Obama acknowledges that point -- but adds the news-analyst's argument that often the Nobel committee awards these prizes as encouragements, signals, or what it hopes will be momentum-changers. If other people are going to say that, Obama does well to signal his understanding of the point himself. And from there he's off to the rest of the (fairly brief) statement, enumerating the sorts of common challenges he has in mind.

My point here concerns rhetoric and persuasion. Agree or disagree on his deserving the award, but reasonable people have to note the skill with which he used this opportunity.

On a related topic: Jerome Doolittle, my one-time colleague in the Jimmy Carter speechwriting office, posted a set of tips early this morning for Republican reaction to the award. So far his predictions are holding up well.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Did I Study Physics?

In this hand-drawn animation, a college graduate explains why she chose her major—and what it taught her about herself.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In