Let's drive a nail in this coffin.
Whenever an aggrieved public figure - from Pierre Trudeau to Conrad Black to Brian Mulroney - has complained that the Canadian people are so resentful of their accomplishments that they wish to drag these notables down to their own humble level, this phenomenon is described as a uniquely Canadian one.
And to be sure it does exist. The shorter poppies would like also to be closer to the sun, the lobster making a break for it does get dragged back into the pot by its jealous peers.
There's a story, possibly apocryphal, of high-ranking federal mandarins at an Ottawa dinner party when the news of Mike Pearson's winning the Nobel Peace Prize came through. And the silence finally is broken by a member of the permanent external-affairs bureaucracy saying, "Who gave him permission for that?"
It wasn't Pearson's idea, nor Barack Obama's, to be honoured in Oslo. But if Canada does have a low pain threshold for high achievers - which I've always believed is a crock - than so do many of our American friends. Here's the first paragraph of Star Washington bureau chief Mitch Potter's account today on U.S. reaction to one of their own being accorded one of the world's highest honours:
"Apologies if you can't hear this. It is a bit noisy down here, what with the gales of unpleasant laughter drowning out Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize."
The conventional wisdom on Obama and the Nobel, as you know, is that Obama doesn't deserve this honour. He hasn't accomplished anything other than some "pretty speeches." (As if oratory wasn't the statesperson's most powerful tool, from Caesar to Lincoln to FDR to Trudeau).
And as U.S. commander-in-chief, Obama is presiding over the continuing U.S. killing of both enemy combatants and innocent civilians in Afghanistan - not at all in keeping with Alfred Nobel's directives. (But then, Nobel himself was atoning for his career as a munitions supplier, so let's not get fancy about "Nobel spinning in his grave".)
As I said when this news broke, in an observation that was a statement of the blindingly obvious, I thought, the Nobel committee is once again sending a message, as is its wont in contrast to the Nobel panels on physics, economics and so on.
And the statement is that the values and goals of the recipient require the world's urgent attention. In the past, the Nobel peace panel's message has addressed genocide in Africa, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, climate change, and other larger-than-life challenges. This time it's nuclear non-proliferation, global unity and humanitarianism, which the committee believes are goals manifestly evident in Obama's past conduct.
They're embodied by Bill Clinton too, who arguably has tangible achievements to his credit. But those achievements have been largely in his post-presidency - helping broker the Good Friday Accords being a notable exception. In any case, Clinton is not president of the United States, the one country, early in the 21st century, still able to claim the attention and potentially influence any and all other nations. The Nobel panel is imploring Obama, early in his tenure, to keep faith with his values rather than shed them out of political expediency.
The time to send this message to a sitting U.S. president, as the committee has twice before done (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), is early in his mandate, before his popularity and influence inevitably wane. It's the nature of governments in genuine democracies that the zenith of their power is in their first two years. After that, governments focus on getting re-elected. And after that, in a U.S. that stupidly term-limits its presidents to eight years (not the Founding Fathers' idea, but that of postwar Republicans angry over FDR's long tenure), a president is a lame duck from the moment of his re-election. Second-term presidents since Ike have been prohibited by a Constitutional amendment from seeking re-election a second or third time. So everyone's focus shifts, from the time of the second inaugural, to the likely line-up of presidential candidates four years' hence, and the issues they are expected to campaign on. The best and brightest are no longer attracted to the low-pay, high-stress work of an administration in its second term.
For all intents and purposes, U.S. presidents serve one term. And that's being generous, since the second half of the president's first term is largely taken up with politicking in advance of getting re-elected. Should they win re-election, second-term presidents are glorified caretakers, lacking sufficient respect, and commanding insufficient fear, in Congress and elsewhere to get much of anything done. The bureaucracy tunes them out because a new president is on the horizon.
As I said, it's a stupid system, not least because the natural tenure of democratically elected governments is about 10 years maximum - the amount of time it takes for even a good government to succumb to complacency and ethical missteps and wear out its welcome with the electorate. Ask Margaret Thatcher, Jean Chretien and Ralph Klein, all forced out by their own caucuses and denied one last encounter with the electorate.
So if you're the Nobel peace prize committee and, typical of that panel, you want to send a global message, you pick an admittedly untested Obama with slender achievements on the world stage because you want to catch him early enough to influence the bulk of his first term, the only period in which he has real power. The record of second-term presidencies is appalling. Nixon and Watergate. Clinton and Lewinsky. Dubya and Katrina, and a popularity rating that seldom rose above 40%.
Bottom line: For whatever reason, Americans aren't universally celebrating the choice of one of their own to receive one of the world's highest honours. It's writ large in this episode that the "tall poppy syndrome" is not unique to Canada. I'm guessing in hunter-gatherer societies there was a tad of resentment for the fellow who brought the biggest wild boar back to camp.
Obama has been cursed all his public life for outshining peers, scoring improbable political victories, and doing so despite the handicaps of his tender age and his race. A minority, but a noisy one, is resentful about that. And that's who we've been hearing from since the announcement was made Friday. Folks who are OK with it, indeed pleased for their country and happy that the man they voted for is so well regarded globally, aren't the folks who write syndicated newspaper columns and spew venom in the commentary "tails" of online newspaper stories. They do not listen to Rush and his fellow Hate Radio commentators.
Still, it's a sad thing when the White House has go into "damage control" over ostensibly good news. There is something distinctly absurdist about U.S. society, for all its virtues, and it's playing itself out again now.