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A peek under the hood as the Times considers Obama's Nobel Prize

October 9, 2009 | 11:10 am

President Obama, Nobel Peace Prize The Times editorial board meets three times a week to discuss what we're going to say in our editorials, but sometimes news breaks between meetings and we scramble to reach a consensus through e-mail. The announcement that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize is a case in point. To give you an idea how ideas germinate within the Opinion Manufacturing Division, here's a transcript of that electronic discussion (with the spelling cleaned up a bit). Please note that this is just the starting point for an editorial -- the off-the-top thoughts that present the writer with angles to pursue and questions to answer. In other words, don't confuse this banter with the reporting editorial writers put into their pieces.

Michael McGough, our Washington-based senior editorial writer, started the conversation at 6:57 a.m. Pacific with a query circulated to the rest of the board:

If we want to railroad an edit [Editor's note: "railroad" is old-school newspaper jargon for rushing something into print] on Obama's Nobel, my thoughts are:
 
1) It's pretty preposterous.
2) He should interpret it as a road map for what he should do (Arab-israeli peace blah blah blah)
3) Even retrospective Nobel Peace Prizes have a pretty checkered history -- e.g., Kissinger, Rabin-Arafat.
 
I'm afraid Republicans will use this as an example of mindless Obamamania among those furriners

Marjorie Miller, who writes about foreign policy (and Winnie the Pooh sequels), punched out a retort on her Blackberry as she got out of the gym:

Yes. It's insane.

Nick Goldberg, editor of the editorial pages, responded:

I'd like a piece. We should talk to Janet about what we have space for. But I think a piece that manages to convey the preposterousness (without attacking Obama TOO much, since it's not really his fault) while also talking about the history of the prize would be good. And making your point that the right will see this as nutty Obamamania.

Miller soon elaborated ...

... on Goldberg's point:

It does illustrate gap between how we view things in US and how we're viewed abroad. It isn't just Obamamania but symbol of how hated Bush policy was and how important is to Europe, say, that Obama has turned around belicose rhetoric and some policy.

She offered more thoughts in two messages shortly thereafter. Note the Yoda-style phrasing at the end of the first one:

You shouldn't get a prize for not being Bush. Or for giving speeches. And it disses the good work a lot of other people are doing. The lead candidate had been that black senator in Colombia who has arranged FARC hostage releases. Like her there are many.

And how many troops is he going to send to Afghanistan?

Editor-at-large Jim Newton checked in next, in typically conciliatory fashion:

I'd echo the view that this seems excessive, but I would note that he's reversed direction on a failed war in Iraq and reached out to the Muslim world in ways no American president ever has (both of which we have commended). If Kissinger could get a Nobel for bombing Cambodia, surely this is a small excess by comparison.

Karin Klein responded:

I agree with Marjorie. This is a chance to give someone who devotes his or her life to helping unfortunate people, right at the ground level . OK, and sometimes it's not given to that sort of person but to a political leader like Anwar Sadat, but in that case it's for accomplishing something tangible (and not easy) in the way of peace.

She also forwarded a fence-straddling comment from Friends of the Earth that criticized the administration's latest moves on climate policy.

Next, McGough responded to the Afghanistan question that Miller raised:

I agree but I agree too with Jim that we could emphasize, after dumping on the choice, that at least it shows how badly Bush hurt the US image. The other question is whether we think the Nobel Peace Prize is a big deal as a general proposition or, like the Nobel Prize for Literature (Sinclair Lewis?), is such a mixed bag that it should be taken with a grain of salt

He also reacted to the Friends of the Earth statement:

does this mean he's no Al Gore, or that they had a preferred candidate?
 
And what does Enemies of the Earth say? :)

McGough's critique of the Nobel Prize for Literature triggered a brief exchange about the merits of those awards and the science prizes. He soon retreated a bit on his criticism of the Peace Prize, and alerted the board to the Republican response:

on the other hand, the prize was deserved by the Northern Ireland guys (that has held up, though Gordon Brown had to go there recently to stop a rupture ). and william faulkner is no sinclair lewis. It's a mixed bag.

GOP response:

http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dc/2009/10/rnc-and-hamas-on-obamas-nobel.html

Klein then offered an idea about the cash Obama stands to receive:

We could suggest he might want to donate the prize money to the people who are working so hard every day on the key issues this represents, groups that are starving for money because of the economy. The very donation would be an accomplishment toward piece.

And Newton noted:

And the Peace Prize often has been given to encourage the pursuit of peace, not merely to reward it.

McGough then circulated the comments from a D.C. think tank on arms control, and Klein provided a link to The New Republic's opinion. By 9 a.m., the die is cast. McGough says he'll write the editorial. I offered my two cents shortly thereafter:

My initial reaction, after saying “You can’t be serious” six or seven times, was to wonder as Marjorie did about what this means for Afghanistan. Maybe the Nobel committee wasn’t paying attention to that issue at all, but a conspiracy-minded person might be inclined to believe the Swedes were trying to affect his decision on troop levels.

McGough pointed out the fatal flaw in my thinking:

The timing of the actual decision—several months ago, apparently—argues against that

Offering futher evidence about the density of my gray matter, McGough added:

PS—it’s Norwegians.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Peace_Prize

This is why they don't let me write about anything that happens outside the U.S. Of course, that just begs the question why they let me write about anything that happens inside the U.S.

Dan Turner chimed in at 9:47:

Mike, you’re making a better point here than you might think. When you really think about it, can you name one person on planet Earth who has made a profound contribution toward the cause of peace over the last year? I can’t. In that context, the award to Obama starts to make more sense. It’s not that he has done so much, but nobody else has done more.

Finally, Lisa Richardson imagined the reaction at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.:

We'll never know, but I bet he was seriously put out at receiving this award.

The Nobel committee accomplished the opposite of its stated mission; it created a headache for him that he doesn't need right now. In the middle of unfinished health care reform, and uncertain economy, a floundering war in Afghanistan, he now has to spend the next few days saying "I'm not worthy."

And while I can't think of any mega-peace types, one thing I count on the committee to do is to call attention to people laboring in places and for causes I hadn't considered. I know Wangari Maathi's work planting trees was big in environmental circles, but the Nobel made her a global name. They could have done that with groups like Women for Women International, which has helped women survivors of war become self sufficient providers for their families. Or Tostan, which has helped thousands of villages in Egypt, Sudan and Senegal stop female genital cutting. There's real momentum and progress on FGM and the Nobel would have it a tremendous boost. I'm sure there are many others, but those are two I'm familiar with.

Which prompted Karin Klein to write:

What Lisa said.

Photo credit: AP Photo / Gerald Herbert

-- Jon Healey

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