Obama's Nobel remarks: four very skillful paragraphs

By James Fallows

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:

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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.

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