The last thing Barack Obama needed at this moment in his presidency and our politics is a prize for a promise.
Inspirational words have brought him a long way including to the night in Grant Park less than a year ago when he asked that we "join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for 221 years block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand."
By now there are surely more callouses on his lips than his hands. He, like every new President, has reckoned with both the power and the danger of words, dangers that are especially great for one who wields them as skillfully as he. A promise beautifully made raises hopes especially high: we will revive the economy while we rein in our spending; we will make health care simpler, safer, cheaper, fairer. We will rid the earth of its most lethal weapons. We will turn green and clean. We will all just get along.
So when reality bites, it chomps down hard. The Nobel Committee cited "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Some of those efforts are faulted by his critics those who favor a missile shield for Poland or a troop surge in Afghanistan or a harder line on Iran. But even his fans know that none of the dreams have yet come true, and a prize for even dreaming them can feed the illusion that they have.
Maybe the prize will give him more power, new muscle to haul unruly nations in line. But peacemaking is more about ingenuity than inspiration, about reading other nations' selfish interests and cynically, strategically exploiting them for the common good. Will it help if fewer countries come to the table hating us? To a point. But it's a starting point, not an end in itself.
At this moment, many Americans are longing for a President who is more bully, less pulpit. The President who leased his immense inaugural good will to the hungry appropriators writing the stimulus bill, who has not stopped negotiating health-care reform except to say what is nonnegotiable, whose solicitude for the wheelers and dealers who drove the financial system into a ditch leaves the rest of us wondering who has our back, has always shown great promise, said the right things, affirmed every time he opens his mouth that he understands the fears we face and the hopes we hold. But he presides over a capital whose day-to-day functioning has become part travesty, part tragedy; wasteful, blind, vain, petty, where even the best-intentioned reformers measure their progress with teaspoons. There comes a time when a President needs to take a real risk and putting his prestige on the line to win the Olympics for his hometown does not remotely count.
Compare this to Greg Mortenson, nominated for the prize by some members of Congress, whom the bookies gave 20-to-1 odds of winning. Son of a missionary, a former Army medic and mountaineer, he has made it his mission to build schools for girls in places where opium dealers and tribal warlords kill people for trying. His Central Asia Institute has built more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan a mission which has, along the way, inspired millions of people to view the protection and education of girls as a key to peace and prosperity and progress.
Sometimes the words come first. Sometimes it's better to let actions speak for themselves.