Nobel Peace Prize is for a vision of a better America

Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

So I guess now he's a socialist-terrorist-secret-Muslim-radical-Christian-Hitler-clone and Nobel Prize winner?

Forgive me for laughing, but half the fun of Friday's surprise news that President Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize lay in anticipating how his political adversaries would react. They did not disappoint.

Rush Limbaugh pronounced the award "a greater embarrassment" than Chicago's failure to land the Olympics.

Titular GOP leader Michael Steele said the honor reflected only the president's "star power."

Blogger Erick Erickson called it "affirmative action."

Of course, not even Barack Obama's fiercest defenders - or, for that matter, the president himself - could argue with a straight face that he's accomplished anything that merits this prestigious prize whose previous recipients include Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel and Martin Luther King Jr. "To be honest," said Obama, "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."

He's right, of course. But then, one suspects that what is really being honored here is not Barack Obama at all - and that "honored" is probably the wrong verb, to boot. I suspect that last week's award was intended less to honor than to remind. As in, to prod a sometimes amnesiac nation into remembering and reclaiming its very best self.

There has always been something rather bipolar about the United States of America. We have periodically seesawed between competing extremes. We've been the visionary and great-hearted America that declared life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness inalienable rights, that fed and rebuilt Europe after a world war, that went to the moon, that inspired the world through the force of its ideals. And we've been the paranoid, reactionary America too small for those same ideals, the xenophobic, fraidy-cat America that wiretaps and witch hunts and sees Reds behind every lamp post, illegals on every street corner, terrorists at every bus stop.

The latter America has asserted itself emphatically in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. Encouraged by President Bush and his endless appeals to expedience and fear, we retreated from our ideals the way you do from a house afire; indeed, we openly questioned whether ideals were still tenable in this frightening new era. In the absence of ideals, we tortured, detained, spied, lied, alibied, all to a chorus of demagogic appeals that would have done Joe McCarthy and Charles Coughlin proud.

Meantime the world watched and wondered what had become of the other America, the better one. Then along comes Barack Obama promising hope and change.

Yes, it was just a political slogan. Except that this slogan from the campaign of 2008 doesn't recede into irrelevance quite as readily as others before it - mainly because it was not what they were. Not, in other words, simply a tool to be used in a contest between competing political visions. Rather, it was a clarion call for people left bereft by the loss of the better America. It was an invitation to feel clean again for the first time in years.

And if the invitation was powerful enough to get Obama elected, it was also powerful enough to lift a world that needs the better America and was beginning to wonder where it had gone. So this prize seems to me less an endorsement of Obama than a stamp of approval for a vision of our national greatness many had feared lost for good.

Granted, hope and change don't write health care bills or silence tea party extremists. But they do remind us of the values that are supposed to shape us and of the better America we can sometimes be.

Barack Obama's election suggested that some Americans have missed that America. His Nobel Prize suggests they aren't the only ones.

• Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may e-mail him at

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