f Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize peeves or perplexes you, take a minute to talk to Paul Simon. Or even Art Garfunkel. For European intellectuals besotted by the 1960s, election year 2008 was Joe DiMaggio all over again. The 1968 tune was “Mrs. Robinson”: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely heart to you…”
Ah, but Joltin’ Joe had left and gone away. So had Jack Kerouac, Jimmy Morrison and JFK.
But who says you can’t go home again?
Wrecked postwar Western Europe looked to the United States for hope, ingeniousness and yearning. What it couldn’t see it imagined. The American hinterlands had loads of space, endless highways, big cars, crazy ideas, stunning blondes, and unwashed bards who bucked the system. Then came a Kennedy and his younger brother, both shot dead; alongside them an elegant, remarkable black man called King, also murdered. Prosaic American men, dull as lead but politely determined, landed on the Moon. Europe chewed on this thrilling, heartbreaking, and contradictory stuff like so much corn candy.
Even during America’s protracted dry spell, Dick Cheney’s Old Europe (and much of the new) kept thinking about Joltin’ Joe (and Janis Joplin for that matter). The noxious Bush II era made it seem that the dreamed-of America might never have existed, a revelation even more devastating in the old country than at home.
Cometh Barack DiMaggio.
Forget the American nation’s lonely heart. It has none. The 2009 version is the date-rape capital of the West and chews and spits out favorites at an alarming pace. There’s often not much to envy.
But parts of Europe still get that loving feeling. And love has nothing to do with the realities of social affairs or government.
Thus the Nobel stars aligned.
The Barack Prize is not really moored to nuclear disarmament or diplomacy. It is a gesture of pent-up thanks, a Bogart-esque tip of the fedora from previously disenchanted middle-aged Swedes. They want the president to know they think he’s swell. They want Americans (and make no mistake, Europeans also) to know they’re impressed by this new and ingenious expression of collective yearning. The rest is irrelevant. They issued pre-approved credit.
Consider that a pity, since if a prize existed for the wrong award at the wrong time the wondrously goofy Swedish committee might well win team honors. But none of that here.
Obama’s Nobel rewards not the American Dream but the European Fable of the United States, a potent narcotic in its own right. All the more so when the leaders of European Union states look like little more than grinning, assembly-line mayors — an idea that the Hitler-watchdog EU can live with.
While brittle Old Europe produced Churchill, Adenauer, De Gaulle, De Gasperi — men with difficult, critical minds, whose relationship with the U.S. was often tormented — the new’s best bet is Nicolas Sarkozy, who at summits spends considerable time seeking out photo ops with Obama, a reflection of European, and Nobel, groupie-think.
In Europe, the question “Does the Nobel damage Obama domestically?” — already the flavor-of-the-month in the skeptical American liberal media (not to mention the Doberman right) — might be, “What does this say about the conferrers?”
The answer is evident. No matter America’s economic dire straights, no matter the disappointments of culture and policies, Europe still depends on U.S. pop culture and cumulative myth-making for its revulsion and applause. European leaders, when they look in the mirror, see themselves foremost, but also an image of the American president. European mirrors are rigged that way, even six decades after the end of World War II.
Italy’s folklore-wise and face-lifted Silvio Berlusconi is his own best old-timer. He still gets misty-eyed when talking about the U.S. liberation. He unabashedly clings to American presidents like so much corny Latin jewelry. Hawks, doves, it never matters: It’s the transmission of his physical closeness to the American president that seals the deal.
The men and women in Stockholm’s arcane halls sought similar closeness. They wanted somehow to vicariously belong to and endorse “Yes We Can,” which over the last 20 months has become as bright and shining as Joltin’ Joe, as Jack Kerouac. They couldn’t, at least not directly.
So they did what they thought was the next best thing: They gave the man a Golden Calf.