“This better be good.”
It was 5:45 a.m. and like many West Wing staffers on Friday, Deputy White House Spokesman Bill Burton had been awoken by a phone call, in this case from an ABC News correspondent, Yunji De Nies, who told Burton that President Obama had just won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. “That is good,” quipped Burton.
A few minutes later, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the President to wake him up with the news, which had been sent around internally to White House staff in an email from Situation Room Staff at about 5 a.m. that read: “Item of Interest: President Obama Wins Nobel Prize.”
Interesting Definitely. Expected Not at all. Just two days earlier, the Associated Press had run a story from Oslo saying “Chinese dissidents” were leading the odds to win the prize, followed by human rights activists in Russia, Colombia, Jordan, Afghanistan and Vietnam. The article also added, cryptically, “U.S. President Barack Obama is thought to have been nominated but it’s unclear on what grounds.”
The article set off no alarms at the White House. There were no discussions in senior staff meetings and no preparations for the pre-dawn announcement. When asked if anyone at the White House had even known Obama was a nominee for the prize, Gibbs said, “Not that I can find.”
Gibbs’ call to the White House was patched through the Situation Room to the President’s residence at about 6 a.m., where Obama was woken by the call. Gibbs has declined to describe the exact words that Obama used to describe his surprise at the news, but the President was happy to boast about his own daughters’ comments to him later in the morning, an anecdote that served to highlight Obama’s humble acceptance of the controversial award. “Malia walked in and said, “Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo’s birthday!”
By 8:30 a.m., the decision had been made to give Rose Garden remarks by Obama, and shortly afterwards, news leaked out that Obama would agree to fly to Oslo to accept the award on Dec. 10. The task fell to Obama’s two top speechwriters, Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes, to craft Obama’s words, which had to strike a delicate balance; they needed to both seize the moment, when the world would want to hear from him, while heading off the inevitable criticism that Obama was being rewarded prematurely, for rhetoric, not action. Not only did he say he was “surprised and deeply humbled,” but the President acknowledged that he doesn’t “feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize.”
But no matter how carefully chosen Obama’s words were, nothing was going to disarm his critics. Shortly after 9:30 a.m., Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee, struck the first blow, issuing a release that suggested Obama was undeserving of the award. “The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished'” Steele said in the statement. “One thing is certain President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.”
By 10:30 a.m., photographers had arrayed in the Rose Garden, but the speech was still not ready. Reporters joked among themselves that the President needed another half hour to actually accomplish something before accepting the prize.
At 11 a.m., Obama could be seen through the thick glass windows of the Oval Office reclining in his chair in shirtsleeves, talking to his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The speech arrived a few minutes later, and after reviewing the draft one more time, Obama walked back to his chair, grabbed his coat, and then, at 11:15 a.m., made his way outside to face the world for the first time, as a 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. With a grim visage that seemed more appropriate for a runner-up than the winner of such a prestigious prize, Obama did his best to deflect the honor. “Let me be clear,” he said. “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 … This award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity.”
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