Sixteen years ago today, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the award of its famous peace prize to James Earl Carter, the former U.S. president who had been out of office for more than two decades.
Jimmy Carter joined an interesting pantheon of American statesmen and stateswomen who’d been so honored. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had won the peace prize while in office. A third U.S. president, Barack Obama, would subsequently be given the award. A vice president, Charles G. Dawes, won in 1925; and 82 years later, membership in this exclusive club was doubled when a former vice president, Al Gore, was so honored.
What did these men do to deserve such an esteemed honor? Well, that’s where politics comes in, which is fitting, I suppose, as they were all politicians.
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Eighteen Americans have won the Nobel Peace Prize, beginning in 1906 when Teddy Roosevelt was cited for helping broker an end to the Russo-Japanese War. The first female recipient was pacifist Jane Addams in 1931. The first person of color was State Department envoy Ralph Bunche, in 1950. Three years later, the first — and only — American military man to receive the prize was Gen. George C. Marshall.
Nobel aficionados can cite their least deserving honoree. Liberals still can’t fathom the 1973 Peace Prize given to Henry Kissinger for his role in negotiating an end to the Vietnam War. And one didn’t have to be a conservative to be astounded at the 2009 prize given to Barack Obama. Although the Nobel committee cited the new U.S. president’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” this language was disingenuous: The nomination for the prize was tendered only 11 days after Obama took office.
Jimmy Carter’s 2002 award, on the other hand, was generally considered to be long overdue. The back story was that the Nobel committee itself was on record as saying that Carter should have shared the 1978 prize that went to Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, and Menachem Begin, the prime minister of Israel.
That year’s award, in the words of Jay Nordlinger, author of a superb book about the Nobel, “was as natural a prize as the committee has ever conferred.” The glitch was that the Camp David Accords that President Carter did so much to effectuate were not signed until September of that year — and Carter had not been nominated before the Feb. 1 deadline as required by the committee’s own guidelines. In apparent adherence to Nordic sensibilities, the rules were the rules.
Among those who considered this an injustice was the 39th president himself. It was a disappointment that festered, as Carter revealed in an interview with CNN’s Jonathan Mann, who asked Carter if he had ever stayed up late at night over the past two and a half decades “grousing about the injustice of it all.”
“Yes,” Carter replied with uncommon candor. “It was hard for me to understand because, I have to admit, I really wanted to earn the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Ostensibly, Carter’s 2002 award was given for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” Few would quarrel with that description; and if one were to consider only the Carter Center’s work to eradicate a disease known as river blindness, Jimmy Carter would have been a deserving recipient.
But as we have been reminded in Washington over the past two years, politics is never far from the surface of human affairs, and in 2002 Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Gunnar Berge sullied Carter’s award by blurting out in an interview that it “should be interpreted” as a “kick in the leg” to George W. Bush.
Showing more grace than his detractors, President Bush arose early on the Friday morning of the October 11, 2002 announcement and telephoned Jimmy Carter to offer his congratulations. The award, the sitting Republican president told the former Democratic president, was “long overdue.”