Obama's Nobel speech

By James Fallows

Just after Barack Obama was chosen for the Nobel Prize, I confidently predicted that his acceptance address would not become the second-ever truly memorable address in the long history of such presentations by storied writers, thinkers, leaders, etc. The only acceptance speech that is still remembered and quoted is William Faulkner's three-minute address on receiving the prize for literature in 1949.

I believe that prediction is still safe; and in terms of Obama's own political reputation and momentum, today's address will not supplant the most important speech he has delivered: the one he gave in Philadelphia, about race relations, in March, 2008. But this was a very good and serious speech, which like many of his major addresses -- the Inaugural address, the one in Prague about nuclear weapons, the one in Cairo on relations with the Islamic world -- will stand re-reading and close inspection, and which shared an obvious intellectual and structural architecture with all his other major addresses. Those trademark elements include:

The embrace of contradictions (in this case, a defense of war as a means to peace); the long view; the emphasis on institution-building; the concern about the distortion of religious and ethnic loyalties; and above all a consciousness that was once called Niebuhrian and at this rate will someday be "Obamian," which emphasizes the importance of steady steps forward in an inevitably flawed world. As Obama said near the end of this speech:

"Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

"But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."

Operational and lower-level political notes: Obama mentioned the past winners who did long-term architectural work in a violent and difficult world -- George Marshall, Henry Dunant of the Red Cross -- along with the King / Mandela idealistic examples. He mentioned, favorably, former presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan; but did not speak the names of the two recent American Peace Prize winners Carter and Gore. As with his Philadelphia speech, he made the speech about the most awkward issue of the moment, rather than trying to avoid it. (In Philadelphia, the racially inflammatory rhetoric of Rev. Jeremiah Wright; in Oslo, his predicament as a war president getting a peace price.) I don't think he provided even a five-second passage of the speech that could be isolated by U.S. opponents to show that he was "apologizing" for America. Also, a fascinatingly direct touch in the "presentation speech" by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee. With Obama sitting next to him, he said:

"Commenting on the award, President Obama said he did not feel that he deserved to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honoured by this prize, and whose courageous pursuit of peace has inspired the world. But he added that he also knew that the Nobel Prize had not just been used to honor specific achievements, but also to give momentum to a set of causes. The Prize could thus represent "a call to action".

"President Obama has understood the Norwegian Nobel Committee perfectly."

Main point, which is consistent across Obama's major addresses and different from most presidential discourse: this will probably seem better, on re-reading and with passage of time, than it did when coming across live. Faulkner is safe, but Obama rose to the moment.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/12/obamas-nobel-speech/31598/